Beyond “the new” Wittgenstein

November 12, 2012

Beyond “the new” Wittgenstein

Hans Sluga

For Zhang Xueguang


Where do we stand today vis-à-vis Wittgenstein’s work? The short answer is that we are caught in a spiral of ever more detailed, ever more exacting, ever deeper digging, ever more sophisticated, ever more scholarly exegeses of his writings: a self-sustaining process in which, so it seems, we are increasingly in danger of losing sight of the world — which, as we should know from the very first sentence of Wittgenstein’s first publication, was what engaged him first and foremost.

There are several reasons for this shift in our philosophical attention away from the world and into the text. We are familiar with the difficulties of reading Wittgenstein’s work: the density of his formulations and the expanse of his writings still so new to us. All this is understandable. But the exegetical turn that our engagement with Wittgenstein has taken is also part of a broad development in philosophy that began in the nineteenth century, that has its roots in the hermeneutic tradition, and that has turned much work in philosophy today into a species of textual interpretation.  As a result we find ourselves on top of an ever growing mountain of exegetical literature on all the major philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Let’s face it: the learned commentary on philosophical texts has become for us a major vehicle of philosophical communication. And because this type of work is so pervasive today we barely notice how new it really is. The exegetical turn has admittedly antecedents in Talmudic scholarship, scholastic philosophy, and biblical theology – three historically related phenomena.  But neither the great thinkers of classical antiquity nor those of classical modernity concerned themselves with this kind of exegetical work.  The same is true of Wittgenstein. There is no place in his writings where he engages in the practice of learned commentary. And here we encounter a paradox to which I want to draw attention: we devote ourselves to Wittgenstein’s thought because we are, let us say, attracted to it and even to some degree identify with it but then we engage in a philosophical practice that is quite alien to the thinking to which we are attracted or with which we even identify.

Anat Biletzki who has admirably described the course of our interpretational engagement with Wittgenstein’s work in (Over)interpreting Wittgenstein takes a more benign view of what is going on than I do. She writes: “The philosophical understanding that is to be achieved by a correct interpretation (of Wittgenstein) involves doing philosophy in a Wittgensteinian manner. Interpreting Wittgenstein means doing Wittgenstein from within.”[1] But is this correct? What grounds are there for asserting this? Wittgenstein is nowhere occupied with textual exegesis; his concerns can rather be summarized in Edmund Husserl’s injunction: “To the things themselves!” with the realization – shared by Husserl and Wittgenstein – that the things to which we need to attend are at times linguistic in character. It is therefore appropriate that Wittgenstein described his work on occasion also as phenomenological in character, that is, as turned to the phenomena, to what is given, but never as exegetical. It is in this spirit that I read also the last words of the Tractatus according to which our realization that its propositions are senseless will finally allow us to see the world rightly, and that is unencumbered by our philosophical preconceptions. In opposition to Biletzki I want to say therefore: Making the interpretation of Wittgenstein’s work the center of our philosophical activity means precisely doing Wittgenstein from outside, i.e., doing Wittgenstein in a non-Wittgensteinian spirit.


Becoming resolute

Biletzki’s book describes vividly how the interpretation of Wittgenstein has shifted over the decades from the naively metaphysical reading of the Tractatus that Russell proposed in its preface in 1920 all the way to the “resolute” interpretation, advanced by Burton Dreben, Cora Diamond, and finally James Conant,  according to which Wittgenstein was a Pyrrhonian skeptic from beginning to end.  This shift marks undoubtedly a real advance in our understanding of Wittgenstein and as it is due to a more careful reading of Wittgenstein’s texts, it teaches us not to denigrate exegetical care. The issue I am raising is what role the exegesis should play in our philosophizing. The pervasively “anti-philosophical” tone of Wittgenstein’s philosophizing is, indeed, undeniable and for this reason Wittgenstein must be called a skeptical thinker, but one who abhors philosophical varieties of skepticism as much as he abhors philosophical refutations of skepticism; Wittgenstein’s skepticism is thus specifically a skepticism about philosophy, and therefore in other words a Pyrrhonian skepticism. In this respect I certainly agree with the resolute reading of Wittgenstein’s work.[2] But I also think that the resolute readers of Wittgenstein’s work tend to underestimate his attraction to, his preoccupation with, even his obsession with philosophical and metaphysical theories.  The thoroughness, for instance, with which he examines the inner workings of logical atomism, the puzzles surrounding the idea of simple objects of which our reality must be composed according to the atomist picture, the complexity of the logical structure that binds those elements together into facts and embeds them into the world, speaks of more than Pyrrhonian, skeptical temperament.[3] That Wittgenstein was drawn to the speculative constructions of Weininger, Spengler, even Frazier is surely undeniable, that he felt the attractions of Frege’s, Russell’s, and Moore’s realism – just as he combated it – cannot be overlooked, that the mystical, the apparent gap between what can be said and what shows itself or can only be shown was constantly in his mind, all this can hardly be doubted. Yes, Wittgenstein was a Pyrrhonian skeptic but one for which even this position was always open to question. I have called him for that reason a man at the crossroads.[4]

I attend to the resolute, Pyrrhonian reading of Wittgenstein here because it might seem to promise a way out of our preoccupation with Wittgenstein’s texts and a return to the world precisely because it removes from us the temptation to trawl Wittgenstein’s writings for positive doctrines which only careful exegesis can reveal. Biletzki aptly summarizes the implications of the most determined variety of resolute reading thus: “There is nothing more to say. Philosophy can teach us nothing because it can say nothing meaningful beyond what science has already told us. The most that a good teacher of philosophy can do is guide us through the history of the subject; and thereby see the mistakes that philosophers have made.”[5] One might have imagined thus that the resolute reading would have staunched the copious flow of interpretations of Wittgenstein’s works. If Wittgenstein’s philosophical utterances are nonsensical, then that should be the end of the matter. And thus the resolute reader of Wittgenstein should be in a position to look beyond the texts and to get once again the world into view. But this has not proved to be the case. In the twenty years since the resolute reading was first proposed, we have seen a new wave of exegetical writings both for and against the resolute reading of Wittgenstein’s work, also writings on the difficulties and implications of this new view, as well as writings concerning exegetical disagreements among the “resolutists.” Rupert Read’s and Matthew Lavery’s recent collection Beyond the Tractatus Wars illustrates how we find ourselves locked now in sectarian battles between resolute and irresolute resolutists, mild and severe mono-Wittgensteinians. Read himself argues plausibly that what matters is “applying Wittgenstein to oneself and one’s (the) world.”[6] But how does the incessant turning of the interpretational wheel contribute to that end? What we see in these interpretation wars is not a renewed attention to the world, but an increasing hyper-specialization of the exegetical type of philosophizing.

In their endeavor to get beyond the text, resolute readers tend to stress the “ethical” and/or “religious” aspects of Wittgenstein’s thought. But in order to get at those one has to sift extra carefully through his texts to find the occasional grains in the overgrowth, one has to recover what he said or may have said in more or less informal conversational contexts, one has to consider the words of associates and friends. Here the interpretational mill is forced to grind particularly finely.[7] Kevin Cahill writes in his recent book The Fate of Wonder that Wittgenstein’s ethical ideal involved the achievement of philosophical (and moral) clarity, of personal authenticity, and “the hope of reawakening wonder and reverence for the world and our place in it.”[8] Well and good, but how powerful and original is this? Would Wittgenstein’s reputation stand up for long, if he were known only for these considerations? The focus of Wittgenstein’s ethical reflections appears, moreover, to have been exceedingly narrow. The ethical ideals Cahill, among others, identifies in Wittgenstein’s thinking are all and exclusively self-regarding in character. They concern the state of mind – the purity, clarity, authenticity, and sense of wonder – of an individual subject. In his “Lecture on Ethics” Wittgenstein describes ethics likewise as “an enquiry into the meaning of life,” that is, as concerned with the meaning of life for the individual. His examples of ethical experiences – the sense of wonder at the existence of the world, feeling safe whatever may happen, and feeling guilty whatever one has done – are all focused on the individual. Lacking from this is any ethical consideration of our relations to others, either individually or in society. This lacuna is surely remarkable, since ethics more broadly conceived concerns not only one’s relations to oneself, but also one’s relations to others as well as one’s existence in communities (political, cultural, religious, national, etc.). It is to Wittgenstein’s credit that he understands the need for an ethics of the care of the self in contrast to classical theorists who tend to be preoccupied with the second of these three aspects of ethics, the ethics of our relations to others (Kant: “Always act towards others…”). But can an adequate ethics of our relations to others be generated from Wittgenstein’s concern with the care of the self?  And can we do without a distinct ethics of the care of the common (or the community) as Wittgenstein and many other ethical theorists do?[9]

The ethics that most readers have extracted from the Tractatus is rather anemic; but one might draw more radical ethical consequences from that book. A really resolute reader of that work should probably follow Wittgenstein in abandoning philosophy altogether, devoting himself or herself instead to the practical work of a monastery gardener, school teacher or architect – and thus make a turn to the world and away from the book – rather than pursuing the career of a professional philosopher. Such a reader should certainly not be expected to make a living from interpretations of the Tractatus. But then, it might be said that Wittgenstein himself recanted later on and returned to philosophy and the text because, as Rupert Read puts it, he came to realize that philosophical “delusions … continually settle upon one.”[10] The suggested picture is of the Freudian sort, of recalcitrant and recurrent neuroses. But why should we accept this picture? We all know of delusions that disappear once and for all when their basis is withdrawn. Why should we think, moreover, that our philosophical delusions always require analysis or therapy of the sort that Wittgenstein proposes? Often they are dispelled rather by drawing attention to certain empirical facts. Cartesian dualism, for instance, may become unattractive when our attention is drawn to certain neuro-physiological data and creationism may lose its appeal once we learn evolutionary biology.


Taking nonsense seriously

            In order to test the capacity of the resolute reading of Wittgenstein to return us from the text to the world, I want to look a little more closely at the claim that there are no philosophical propositions. There is surely something disquieting in the appearance of this claim in the middle of the Tractatus after Wittgenstein has laid out a great deal of metaphysical, linguistic, and logical theorizing. But even more disquieting is that the sentence at 4.112: “The result of philosophy is not a number of ‘philosophical propositions’” appears itself to be a philosophical proposition. It is surely not so different from those propositions in the Tractatus that are more readily classified as philosophical. Compare it to the first sentence of the book: “The world is everything that is the case.” Both propositions 1 and 4.112 make totalizing claims – one about the world, the other about philosophy; both are uttered with dogmatic certainty; if they are anything, they must both be necessary truths. They are evidently not propositions of empirical science. We have thus reasons to consider both sentences nonsensical. But now we find ourselves on the slippery ground of the liar paradox. The apparent proposition “There are no philosophical propositions” – which is what 4.112 comes to – says of itself that it is nonsensical and thus is presumably not only meaningful but also true. But if it is meaningful and true and is itself a philosophical proposition, then it is, of course, nonsensical. And if it is nonsensical, then it surely cannot give us a reason to conclude that the assertions of the Tractatus are all nonsensical; nonsense can’t give us reasons for anything. But then it may turn out for all we know that there are meaningful philosophical propositions. But if there are, then the assertion that there is no such thing as a philosophical proposition will prove not meaningless but simply false. And so we go round in circles. Resolutists may want to escape from these dilemmas by arguing that 4.112 belongs not to the material under interdiction but is part of the framework of the Tractatus together with the preface and the concluding sections 6.53-7. But two things stand in the way of this way out. The first is that Wittgenstein indicates nothing of the kind; the second is that it is precisely the framework propositions that contain meta-theoretical, non-empirical claims of the sort most plausibly to be considered philosophical in the undesirable sense.

There is an additional reason for being suspicious of the claim that there are no philosophical propositions. Wittgenstein says that our metaphysical utterances typically turn out to be nonsensical because we have failed to give meaning to one or other of the signs in the sentence. But have we given meaning to the term “philosophical proposition” in “There are no philosophical propositions”? The Wittgenstein of the Tractatus wants to distinguish between philosophical (or metaphysical) propositions and those of empirical science. But how sharp is the distinction? We should not forget that it is only of recent origin. Descartes’ theory of vortices, for instance, was meant to be both. The distinction is, in fact, specifically Kantian in origin – and as such far from uncontroversial. Is atomism, for instance, a metaphysical or a scientific doctrine? Was it a metaphysical doctrine when Democritus first formulated it but then became a scientific one when Lavoisier resurrected it? The two argued, admittedly, in different ways. But does that make the claim nonsensical in one case and meaningful and possibly even true in the other? Even when we consider straightforwardly metaphysical doctrines, it is far from obvious that they are nonsensical. Is philosophical idealism nonsensical or is it not plainly false and is materialism nonsensical or should we not rather say that on the basis of what we know it is plainly true? Wittgenstein seems to think that philosophical propositions are concerned with conceptual matters whereas scientific ones concern facts. But that distinction too is unreliable. Is the difference between Newtonian mechanics and relativity theory a conceptual or a factual one? The later Wittgenstein wanted to distinguish between philosophical theses and everyday assertions. That distinction is also fraught with difficulties. Do we really know where the everyday ends and the philosophical begins? In real conversations and in real thought we seem to drift in and out of these domains and the boundary between them appears to be porous.

But let us grant Wittgenstein and his resolute readers for a moment their restrictive use of the term philosophical; let us grant them that there are no philosophical propositions and that nothing positive can be said in philosophy. That leaves the question what things we can and need to speak of. We certainly will want to reject the Tractarian idea that the only meaningful sentences are those of natural science. And it is also not enough to say with the later Wittgenstein that what is meaningful are the ordinary utterances of everyday life. We must acknowledge that among the sayable things will be some that are not philosophical in the resolute (or Wittgensteinian) sense but that are nonetheless akin to philosophical propositions in that they deal, for instance, with very general matters or with matters that we can talk of only in a speculative manner, matters at the boundaries of scientific knowledge, or matters significant to our human existence, with pressing and even burning questions. To please our resolute friends we can call those propositions quasi- or para-philosophical – leaving open whether there is really a sharp between them and the propositions that they want to reject as meaningless. The quasi- or para-philosophical, we might say, is all that which is not philosophical in the way Kant, or Wittgenstein, or the resolutists envisage it but close enough to philosophy, similar to philosophy in certain respects. Even if nothing philosophical can be said, there may be still lots of quasi- or para-philosophical matters to talk about. And we might be well-advised, if our resolutists are right, to leave philosophy alone and to devote ourselves instead to the issues of quasi- or para-philosophy.


What’s there to be said?

But you may ask: what is left of Wittgenstein when we start thinking in a quasi- or para-philosophical manner? How could he be relevant to this kind of undertaking? I return to Anat Biletzki’s book at this point where she distinguishes between the interpretation and the use of Wittgenstein. So we might say that in the quasi- or para-philosophical undertaking we would still be able to use Wittgenstein’s thought, this or that bit of it – though, perhaps, not in the way he intended it. But Biletzki’s distinction needs refining. She realizes herself, in fact, that it is not water-tight. Did Carnap interpret or use Wittgenstein, she asks. Are we interpreting or using Wittgenstein when we speak of him in relation to ethics, religion, social science, or politics? Our problem is that the word “use” has distinct senses. (This is important also when we consider the proposition that the meaning of a word is its use.) This dissolves Biletzki’s distinction between interpretation and use for in one sense we can say even that we are using Wittgenstein words when we are interpreting them. But from this we can surely distinguish the kind of use in which a reader takes a proposition from Wittgenstein, ignoring all the rest, and does some independent philosophical work with it. Biletzki holds that such a user would still have first to interpret Wittgenstein and that interpretation is therefore more fundamental than use. But this, too, need not be granted. A user may appropriate Wittgenstein’s words without regard to what Wittgenstein himself meant by them. Philosophers, in fact, often appropriate the sayings of others in just this fashion. Take for instance Aristotle’s statement that human beings are by nature political animals. We often repeat that sentence but do so in our own very modern context and rarely ask what Aristotle meant by political or by nature or even by human being. If we were to ask those questions, we would quickly find out that we have used Aristotle’s words without properly interpreting them. There is yet a further kind of use of a philosopher’s words we make when we are interested not in the claims they make but in the questions they raise and the problems they open up. Finally there is the kind of use in which one sets out to rethink a philosopher’s work comprehensively, where one seeks to revision it systematically and as a whole without focusing necessarily on any particular thing the philosopher said and when one tries to use the resulting insights to reflect on a set of other philosophical or quasi- or para-philosophical problems. It is just this latter use that seems to me needed, if we want to return Wittgenstein’s work to the world.

Wittgenstein’s first word in philosophy was “the world,” as I have said, – the first word, anyway, of the Tractatus. But that book speaks of the world only with respect to its logical and metaphysical structure. In its course it discovers that such speaking is senseless. The Tractatus seeks to characterize the world as everything that is the case and as the totality of facts, but the terms “everything” and “totality” as here employed prove to be mere formal and pseudo-concepts and the same holds for the terms “being the case” and “fact.” It follows that we have failed to give meaning also to the term “world” and the sentences of the Tractatus that seek to speak of the world are therefore all meaningless. But this is not the end of the story. For there is still another way to speak of the world – which is present in the Tractatus, however, only in its absence. For there is also the world in which Wittgenstein is writing his book, the world of warfare and death, the world of friendship and despair, the human and social world of which Wittgenstein writes only in his so called “Secret Diary.” Let us call this the world of experience, meaning that it is the world which presents itself to us through ordinary, everyday experience, not that it is a world existing only in experience. The question is whether we can speak philosophically of this world of experience. The answer may well be that nothing philosophical can be said about it, certainly not according to the conception of philosophy Wittgenstein espouses in the Tractatus. Wittgenstein himself was aware of this as he wrote self-critically in 1931 “When I ‘have done with the world’ … the world in all its variety will be left on one side like an uninteresting lumber room. Or, perhaps more precisely: the whole outcome of this entire work is for the world to be set on one side. (A throwing-into-the lumber-room of the whole world).”  And in trying to explain to himself what was missing from the world he was capturing or, rather, failing to capture in his philosophical work, he added: “In this world (mine) there is no tragedy, nor is there that infinite variety of circumstance which gives rise to tragedy (as its result). It is as though everything were soluble in the aether of the world [we might say, the logical aether of the Tractatus]; there are no hard surfaces.” In this Tractarian world hardness and conflict appear only as a defect. All conflict is dissolved and there are for that reason no more tensions, no more tragedy – unlike what we find in the world of experience.[11] Wittgenstein made these despondent comments at a time when he had more or less abandoned the Tractarian view-point; at a time of disillusionment and uncertainty, and a time also when he had not yet found a way to talk about a world in which builders build and children learn, where games are played or not played, where rules are followed or not followed, where we speak in different languages to each other, with different pictures of the world before us. That was to come later. This suggests a distinction between the early and the late Wittgenstein of a different sort from the one that is usually considered: a distinction between a view in which the world of experience is excluded and one in which it is present. But Wittgenstein was, of course, one man and it may be correct to say, as his resolute readers do, that throughout his life he was skeptical about the possibility of anything philosophical – whether that is the logical aether of the Tractarian world or a philosophical account of the world of experience. But for all that it may still be that the world of experience is open to quasi- or para-philosophical reflections and deserves and even needs to be thought about in quasi- or para-philosophical terms.

We say that philosophy distinguishes itself from other pursuits by dealing in metaphysical, necessary, a priori, conceptual, or advancing totalizing theories. It often does that but it is above all an engagement in what strikes us as the “deepest,” most serious, most burning questions.  That is, in any case, how I see Wittgenstein’s philosophizing: as a commitment to the questions that burdened him most, as the attempt to think with a passion. Much of the Wittgenstein literature, on the other hand, lacks precisely this passion.  Now I also believe that the questions which most passionately occupied Wittgenstein are not inevitably ours. I am certainly not convinced that there are eternal, unchanging questions and that, if there are, that they are necessarily the ones that do or should occupy us most passionately. The question of the existence of the gods is, for instance, one of those perpetual concerns; it has occupied many with the deepest passion. But one can sympathize with the sophist Protagoras who said: “As far as the gods are concerned, I do not know whether they exist or do not exist; the question is too obscure and life is too short.”  For Wittgenstein the most burning questions were questions of sense, of meaning, of logic, and grammar and these were set him by his two icons Frege and Russell. There is much to be said why those questions had this peculiar status for Wittgenstein, but this is not my concern here. My concern is rather that the questions that occupied Wittgenstein so passionately are no longer so deeply burning to us. And that is, as far as I am concerned, largely due to the success of what Wittgenstein has done. As a result of his thinking I no longer assume that numerals refer to numbers, that the possibility of mapping mathematics in some logical calculus is of much explanatory value, that we can speak of sense data as ultimate components of reality, that there are logical objects, and so on and so on. I understand that one can go on indefinitely tossing these issues around but they don’t seem to me to burn with the old fire. And if we say that behind these technical question lay for Wittgenstein the ethical question of the meaning of life – the question of the meaning of one’s own individual existence, then it may also turn out that this is not what is for us most pressing. Because the conditions of our existence have changed we understand more clearly than the generation to which Wittgenstein belonged that we can make sense of our individual lives only when we see them as embedded in the human community. To say it in other words: we have come to understand that the ethics of the care of the self must be grounded in an ethics of the care of the common.

What we can learn from Wittgenstein is first and foremost that we must devote ourselves to our most burning issues, that we must think about them with a passion. Once we have identified those issues we must ask ourselves what we can say about them. Let’s not start at this point from the idea that philosophy will have nothing to say. If it should turn out that way, we can always say farewell to philosophy and take up a quasi- or para-philosophical position. Now I believe (and this is a personal conviction) that the most burning problem for us today is that of our human, social existence, that the care of the common must be today our primary concern. I think so because of three major issues: (1) the size and continuing growth of the human population that paradoxically individualizes and at the same time depersonalizes us. (2) The equally unstoppable growth of technology that gives us unheard of powers but that also makes us powerless in the face of technological violence and destruction. (3) A natural and historical world that we exhaust and trample to death while we celebrate it. These were not Wittgenstein’s most burning concerns, nor those of his generation. They are so, however, for us because we see now (or should see) that there will be no human life left to lead and hence no questions to be asked about the meaning of such a life, unless we know how to address those issues.

I don’t know my way about!

But here I am struck by the possibility that we may, indeed, have nothing philosophical or even quasi- or para-philosophical to say on these matters, burning as they no doubt are, and that our preference for the safety of texts and the business and game of interpretation is an escape from the world staring us in the face – precisely because our words fail us.

I am thinking here of Wittgenstein’s realization that we lack a map for the landscape in which we are moving. Our grammar, he says, is unsurveyable, that is, we lack a comprehensive account, an overview over the functioning of our language. And the same thought applies to cultures and civilizations and, indeed, to the human form of life as a whole. In reflecting on the grammar of our language, on our culture, and on the human form of life, Wittgenstein writes, we are constantly forced to say: “I don’t know my way about!” Instead of finding firm ground for our opinions we can say only: “I have seen, heard, and read various things.” This does not mean that we are completely blind, completely unable to move about. In the confined space of a familiar environment we can operate with ease. But we have no synoptic view, no comprehensive account or theory, no complete map of the world. How then do we manage under these conditions? By being trained to do so from the moment of birth, by acquiring skills and habits, by developing practices, by learning to insert ourselves into an institutional order.

But there is something else Wittgenstein tells us in the Philosophical Investigations. The world with its human life, its history, culture, and language may not be surveyable for us. Yet, we do not simply grope our way blindly; we make maps for ourselves, crude and incomplete as they are; we draw simple, schematic pictures; we create elementary scenarios of speech and action (“language games”) to illustrate how we go about things; we construct models in signs, figures, words, or material bits. Our practical orientation in unsurveyable domains is, thus, infused with images, signs, words, and concepts – not a mute handling of things. These devices prove indispensable to us but we are forced to recognize that they also often mislead us because of their crudeness, their simplicity. We use them analogically, comparing the relations between parts of the model to relations between parts of reality; the question is always how far the analogy goes.

There is a contrast here to what Wittgenstein says in the Tractatus. There he maintains that we cannot have a theory of the logic of our language because for that we would have to step outside our language and look at it as a whole. But there is no such standpoint beyond our language. And he also says that we cannot formulate a theory about the relation of thought and language because for that we would have to step not only outside our thought but also outside the world and look at their relation from that outside standpoint. But there is no such standpoint. Hence, the idea of a logical theory is absurd and so is that of a theory of how language and thought map out the world. All this is at the heart of Wittgenstein’s conclusion that what he is trying to say on these matters in the Tractatus is strictly nonsense. By contrast, he tells us in his  later work that we cannot have a comprehensive theory of our grammar, our culture and society, or of our form of life, but he allows that we can have simplified models of these domains and that these models serve an important purpose when we seek to orient ourselves.  When someone proposes what he takes to be a comprehensive theory of such a domain he is not uttering nonsense but only saying something unjustified. Such a theorist doesn’t see that he has only a simple, crude model at his disposal, not a verifiable comprehensive theory. Consider in this connection what Wittgenstein writes about Spengler’s attempt to construct a comprehensive account of history. He doesn’t dismiss Spengler words as nonsensical – as might have done in the Tractatus period – but calls them “exaggerated, dogmatic assertions” and he asks: “What is actually true in this? … In what case is that actually true?” (CV, p. 16) He also characterizes Spengler’s view of history as a “distortion” and he suggests that it “doesn’t lose any of its dignity if it is presented as a principle of a form of seeing (Prinzip der Betrachtungsform)” which perhaps provides “a good way of measuring” (eine gute Messbarkeit)” the historical facts. (CV, p. 27) Comprehensive statements of the sort that Spengler proposes are thus not at all nonsensical but must be considered heuristic principles for seeing things in ways that makes them measurable and precise.

There are two things our models can do for us. We can use them to orient ourselves in an unsurveyable domain but we can also use them for reconstructing such a domain, for making it surveyable. We can speak thus of a cognitive and of a normative function of the model. A simplified model of our grammar, for instance that of the Tractatus, can help us to understand some features of our actual language – even though that language as a whole proves to be  unsurveyable in its complexity. But we can also create a simple model grammar for the purpose of reconstructing how we speak. Esperanto was such an attempt to construct a language with a surveyable grammar. Think also of the modern standardization of spelling or the standardized way language is used in science. But all attempts at normalizing our everyday language have so far met with little success. In ordinary life we always, in the end, retain our essentially complex, unsurveyable language. I emphasize this because some of Wittgenstein’s words on this matter might be misunderstood. In section 92 of the Investigations, for instance, he speaks, as if we could make our unsurveyable language surveyable. He writes of the mistaken view that “the essence of language” is something “that lies beneath the surface;” this view, he adds, “does not see the essence as something that already lies open to view and that becomes surveyable through ordering (durch Ordnen).” (My translation) Does he mean to say that we can make language surveyable by reorganizing it? This is, surely, not what he is after since he also maintains, as we know, that “philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language.” (PI, 124). Wittgenstein certainly does not consider it his task – not even in the Tractatus – to reform or reorganize the language we speak in the name of an ideal surveyability.  When it comes to our social order or even more the human form of life, we can also conceive of the possibility of “rationalizing” them, that is, making them conform to a “rational,” i.e., surveyable plan. In some parts of our social order we accept the desirability for such reorganization; in the military, for instance, in the prison, the hospital, the corporation.  We speak then of disciplinary society and a disciplinary order. But as in the case of language, we resist wholesale reform of our social existence in the name of a surveyable plan. What is the source of this resistance? What its rationale?

Hayek’s error

Friedrich Hayek, the economic thinker, has asked some of these questions. Starting from observations close to Wittgenstein’s he has reached specific but doubtful conclusions.  I don’t know whether it is mere coincidence that Hayek’s assumptions resemble some of Wittgenstein’s ideas. Hayek, as we know, was Wittgenstein’s cousin – a distant one – and at one point he sought to write a biography of his relative. Does this mean that he knew Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical writings and that they influenced him in his own thinking?

Hayek reasoned as follows: Our social order, including our economic reality, is so complex that we cannot survey it. Call this premise 1. Premise 2 is then the thought that we orient ourselves in that social order through practical know-how. And from these two premises he concluded first of all that there cannot be a comprehensive scientific account of our social system, including, once again, the economic part of it. Narratives that claim to provide such an account must therefore be bogus. There can be no such thing, for instance, as a scientific socialism; but the same is to be said of the social theories of a Plato or Hegel. None of these theories can be tested and verified. Each one of them gives us a distorted picture of our reality. Hayek concluded further that this was an argument for human freedom. Given our social ignorance, individuals must be left to cope with the social order in the best way they can; acquiring competence to do so by trial and error, developing skills of survival, means of success under uncertain conditions, learning from others who have acquired such skills. Hayek also concluded that this applied in particular to our economic reality, that there also only coping practices of individual agents can bring success. He concluded that we should therefore be left as free as possible from regulation both in social and economic life, that in particular only a free market can economically flourish, that free market capitalism is the only viable economic order, and that only function of the state can be to assure this freedom.

Hayek’s considerations amount to a new defense of radical liberalism, or, as we may say, of libertarianism. It defends this position not by advancing positive principles or values, but from a principle of ignorance. Hayek’s is a skeptical, if you wish a Pyrrhonian, form of liberalism. But doe his premises justify his conclusions? This matters because libertarianism – of which Hayek’s is, of course, only one variety – is proving to be an increasingly powerful political doctrine, perhaps the doctrine most characteristic of our age. It is linked to the three issues that make for the problematic character of our social existence: population size, technology, and environmental naturalism. Naturalism seems to tell us that we are by nature selfish creatures, that what we call altruism is only a sophisticated version of selfishness. The vastness of the human population alienates us from each other, individualizes and separates us, makes us perceive the others as mere instruments in the fulfillment of our own needs and wishes. It reduces social relations to commercial ones. Technology, finally, allows us to organize this form of relationship on a large scale. Libertarianism proves thus a compelling belief system for those who have succeeded in this newly emerging social order as well as for those who hope, often blindly, that they too will eventually profit from such an order. Freedom is the bait of this new social reality, social gradation and degradation its most likely outcome.

We should not blame Hayek, a humanist at heart, for wanting this outcome. But we can blame him for providing what looks at first like a plausible justification for the libertarian creed – the most plausible justification it has – and which turns out to be faulty at closer inspection. I believe that a return to Wittgenstein’s way of looking at the unsurveyability of our form of life can help us to clarify the matter. If we consider this issue, would we be doing philosophy in Wittgenstein’s sense? Perhaps not in so far as we will have to draw on all kinds of factual considerations. But we might find ourselves in some ways close enough to the kind of enterprise that Wittgenstein calls philosophy to speak of ours as quasi- or para-philosophical.

I am sketching a plan and have time only for that, for some first rudimentary considerations. First of all is the question whether the fact that our form of life is unsurveyable and that we cope with this in a practical manner implies a commitment to a strong individualism.  Now we can say that there are certainly some skills and habits that we can form and exercise individually. The answer to Wittgenstein’s question whether one can formulate and apply a rule individually is surely that this is possible. It is even possible to apply such a rule only once. Think of your decision to take up regular exercise. You need not have told others that you have formed it and that you are now following that rule. And it is also possible that you enter the gym only once and never set foot in it again. But most rules and practices are not of that kind and that, too, is important. The essence of rule-following is not revealed to us by a singular, extreme case. Human skills and practices are for the most part social and could not be otherwise. They involve, for instance, more than one person in their execution; they are passed from one person to another in practical training and over time can become increasingly complex through the accumulated experience of many. The practical skills that we have as individuals are thus naturally anchored in our existence as social and socialized beings.

And such practices are not usually mute; they are accompanied by signals and words, by illustrations and dramatic enactments. Think of the way the acquisition of a skill may be enhanced through a manual of instructions and better even through one that has pictures or that is accompanied by a video or how we depend on a teacher exemplifying or mimicking what we are to do. When it comes to more complex practices, such as the organization of a business, the acquisition of such skills will require more symbolic activity: the study of successful business operations, for instance, and descriptive accounts of financial and taxation matters. Production methods have to be analyzed. A successful business will have to know of the cyclical movements of the local, the national, the world economy. The idea that economic action is a matter of simple know-how may be true in a shop keeper’s economy, but it will not work for a modern executive.

The question what government can do in the complex environment of modern society and what should be left to individuals and their initiatives has no simple answers. Government agents may be as skilled in dealing with economic currents just as much as business executives. Their roles have become for that reason often exchangeable.  Is corporate economic planning inevitably more efficient than the governmental variety? Governments often have more information at their disposal and larger resources than private corporations, but since the pursuit of self-interest is more constrained in them, they may often be unable to use those advantages in the most ruthlessly efficient manner. Our present economic situation, with the West in crisis and Chinese state capitalism flourishing, may show us that the question of how free markets should be from government interference is far from settled.

Scientific socialism may be a chimera, just as any other attempt at constructing a comprehensive science of society.  But this said, it is still true that all of us operate all the time with comprehensive pictures of our social reality and that these are indispensable in our practical dealings with the world. The business executive who fails to have an overall picture of the world economy is bound to fail. What both Wittgenstein and Hayek remind us of is not to put too much trust in those pictures.  They are at best partial representations, simplified models of what is going on; they give us a sense of understanding, but the apparent analogies between them and our actual reality may be misleading. Which leaves the question to what extent we can and do use such simple models not in a descriptive but in a normative manner. Socialism, for instance, has always been more than an attempt to map a comprehensive picture of our social reality; it has also always sought to describe a better form of social existence. Wittgenstein’s skepticism about the usefulness of reconceiving our form of life in the light of simple normative account of how it should be constructed, reminds us to be cautious with any such endeavors. But while he admonished us that philosophy must take things for what they are and thus leave them as they are, he did not mean to say that we must leave them as they are.

It’s here where I stop; aware of how little I have done. But the appropriate end of every sort of philosophical reflection is always and inevitably the question mark. That I take to be the ultimate lesson of Wittgenstein’s Pyrrhonian skepticism.




[1] Anat Biletzki (Over)Interpreting Wittgenstein, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht-Boston 2002, p. 17.

[2] Hans Sluga, “Wittgenstein and Pyrrhonism,” ,” in Pyrrhonian Skepticism, edited by Walter Sinnott-Arnstrong, Oxford University Press 2004, pp.  (I add in passing that I deeply dislike the self-congratulatory term “resolute” but realize that it may by now have become unavoidable).

[3] Hans Sluga, “Simple Objects, Complex Questions,” in Wittgenstein’s Early Philosophy, edited by José L. Zalabardo, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2012, pp. 99-118

[4] Hans Sluga, Wittgenstein, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester 2011, chapter 1

[5] Biletzki, loc. cit., p. 99.

[6] Rupert Read and Rob Deans, “The Possibility of a Resolutely Resolute Reading of the Tractatus, in Beyond the Tractatus Wars. The New Wittgenstein Debate, edited by Rupert Read and Matthew A. Lavery,  Routledge, NewYork-Abingdon 2011, p. 165

[7] We must, in any case, distinguish between the motivation and the content of a philosophical work. That Cantor’s set theory was motivated by theological speculations doesn’t make it a religious doctrine. The same surely for Wittgenstein.

[8] Kevin M. Cahill, The Fate of Wonder. Wittgenstein’s Critique of Metaphysics and Modernity, Columbia University Press, New York 2011, p. 141

[9] I have borrowed the term “care of the self” from Foucault who, in turn, has taken it from Plato; and I have adopted the term “care of the common” directly from Plato’s “Protagoras” and “Statesman.”

[10] Rupert Read, loc. cit., p. 164.

[11] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 9.

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