Does Wittgenstein offer a talking cure for philosophers?

Wittgenstein often emphasised the difference between his way of doing philosophy and traditional approaches – indeed, he sometimes suggests that what he does should be seen as a successor activity to philosophy. Partly, this is about giving up a certain kind of ambition – the later Wittgenstein is not aiming to discover deep truths about the nature of reality or to give people insights into how they should live or to help them make sense of the world and their lives. In short, he is not offering wisdom or claiming to be a wise man.

But it is not all about renunciation. In part, he wants to make philosophy more business-like, make it an activity where you get results and sort problems out once and for all. Of course, philosophers have always been tempted by the fantasy of providing the ultimate answer to everything, but even the early Wittgenstein felt uncomfortable with this fantasy and, while claiming that his book solved all of philosophy’s problems, he was quick to add that this just showed “how little has been done when these problems have been solved”.

So how can he end disputes without claiming to be wise? Because he thinks there is a certain type of argument where nothing is really at stake. If I say that cow’s milk has a lower boiling point than goat’s milk and you say the opposite, there is a clear matter of fact about which we disagree. If I say murderers should be executed and you disagree, then although there are no facts at stake, there clearly is a real substantive disagreement. If my view prevails, then things will happen that you think should never happen.

By contrast, in his argument with the solipsist Wittgenstein denies that there is really anything at stake. The solipsist feels obliged to make certain claims (e.g. “I can never really know that another person is in pain”) but Wittgenstein does not think this is because he believes different things about the world or because he has different views about how people should treat each other. Rather the real problem is that he is  confused. He does not know his way about with the concepts he uses, so he feels obliged to make claims which don’t really mean anything or which can be given meanings but which then involve claims the solipsist would not want to make.

For Wittgenstein, therefore, there are debates (or at least aspects of some debates) that can be resolved through conceptual clarification, i.e. there is an activity that can end certain apparently interminable disputes without either party having to change their views on how things are or on how we should act. These disputes (or these aspects of some disputes) are unnecessary. Since there are plenty of real problems for us to struggle with, let us at least eliminate these pseudo-problems.

But it is not quite as simple as that. The parties to philosophical disputes do think something is at stake and they are typically very committed to the correctness of their view and to the idea that their opponents are wrong. So persuading them that they are not really saying anything (or not saying anything they would really want to say) is going to be a challenge. Success in talking with the solipsist will not involve him saying: “I now see how wrong my views were”; rather we want him to say: “I now have a better understanding of how the concepts I use work and, of course, that means I am not going to say some of the very confused things I used to say”.

Against this background it is understandable that Wittgenstein should present his work as a kind of therapy. It is not about proving the truth of certain views; it is about helping people disentangle themselves from the confused positions they have got themselves into. This may suggest that one-on-one therapy is the ideal, but since the confusions we fall into reflect the language we share, unravelling certain central and typical confusions can potentially help many different people at the same time. Real knots need to be untied one at a time, but you can discuss typical mistakes people make trying to tie knots and teach them techniques for sorting out the resultant mess.

The “therapeutic” nature of Wittgenstein’s work is also reflected in his tendency to come at the same issue many times from slightly different angles. Language offers us many related and similar temptations, so getting to a stage where we really know our way around involves making many trips rather than simply once successfully navigating from A to B. Furthermore, as with a therapist it is crucial that Wittgenstein listens carefully and accurately captures the (confused) claim that his patient wants to make. Not only will the patient not feel listened to if Wittgenstein does not use the same words, but if the words are not precisely right, he risks offers therapy for the wrong problem. If the aim is to help the patient better understand the conceptual relations embedded in the concepts he uses, the patient needs to confirm that the therapist is actually describing his concepts. Otherwise it looks as if the therapist is trying to force new concepts on him rather than helping him with those he already has.

There are other possible links one could make between what Wittgenstein does and psychotherapy. For example, Wittgenstein sometimes suggests that the problem in philosophy is often one of the will as much as of the mind. We like to feel that in our philosophical reflexions we are grappling with the hardest problems and that the answers we come up with are deep insights into the nature of reality. Conversely, we don’t want to be told it is just a matter of conceptual confusion. Neither the person who embraces solipsism nor the person who believes he has refuted it wants to be told that he just needs a better understanding of how our psychological concepts actually work. Wittgenstein’s approach offends our vanity and one can see why people have preferred the glorious search for metaphysical truth to the tiresome struggle for conceptual clarity.

So does this mean that doing philosophy Wittgenstein’s way is therapeutic in a deeper sense – might unravelling our conceptual confusions also end up making us better people? This is an attractive idea, but ultimately I think it is misleading. As an individual, Wittgenstein believed in the value of hard work. He thought that doing something really well involved giving up your vanity and being truthful about your abilities; it involved being patient rather than thinking you are so wonderful that you can achieve instant success; and it involved letting the focus of your work set the agenda rather than trying to impose one of your own. All of this is true in relation to the work of conceptual clarification, so one might claim that doing it well is potentially good for you, but only in the same sense that trying to be a good architect or a good gardner (or a good anything) might be good for your character. I don’t think Wittgenstein would want to suggest that in any strong sense reading the Philosophical Investigations might help you become a better person.

But hang on. Earlier I suggested that there was nothing at stake in Wittgenstein’s argument with the solipsist, isn’t that terribly terribly wrong? After all, when he claims not to be able to know that another person is in pain isn’t the solipsist striking at the very essence of our relationship to each other? What more could possibly be at stake! But the reason we see the solipsist as confused is because his dramatic claim does not actually lead anywhere – in everyday life he does things pretty much as we do, and that’s why it is so striking that he feels forced to make such strange claims. If the person we are talking to really began to sound like Hannibal Lector, then we would quickly stop thinking that his biggest problem was not knowing his way around his concepts.

In fact, this brings us back to the sense in which Wittgenstein’s approach is a renunciation. To suggest that philosophy is just about conceptual confusion is obviously wrong – who would want to treat the works of Plato, Kant and Heidegger as simply mistakes? The reason philosophy has been seen as the noblest of pursuits is because it does engage with what matters most to us. Indeed, even the solipsist can be seen as expressing the mixed feelings we have about being separate from each other. Perhaps his confused claim that he can never really know that others are in pain in part reflects a fear that in some sense he too is alone with his pain.

So there are aspects of philosophy that are not to do with conceptual confusion, and there are ways of philosophy that involve doing things that are not about conceptual clarification. But those are not paths Wittgenstein wanted to pursue. What he thought he saw was that you could separate off certain aspects of philosophical problems and so put yourself in a position to resolve them. In fact, what is astonishing about the later Wittgenstein’s approach is how much you can actually get sorted if you aim for clarity rather than wisdom. Philosophy’s puzzles do trigger deep stirrings in our souls and following that out can have value; but another approach is to ignore those links and simply unravel those puzzles themselves.


  1. I agree with this up to a point, but I think there’s more to be said about the role philosophical theories/problems play in our lives. The last two paragraphs of your post glance in this direction (I think), but I’d want to explore this area in more detail. In particular, it seems to me that philosophical theories can sometimes be used as a kind of justification for problems whose real root lies elsewhere. Clarifying the philosophical problem, therefore, might at least have the merit of clarifying the problem itself.

    Sorry, all this is very unclear and patchy – I’m writing this on the hoof, so to speak). I might try to write a proper blog post on it, as it’s a complicated area (and a rather speculative one, too – I definitely move over to Armchair Psychology at this point!)


    • Paul says:

      Good to hear from you, Phil (and to know you have internet connectivity again!). My last two paras were intended to acknowledge that there are other ways of doing philosophy (for example, Cavell does not do what I would see as conceptual clarification, but he does explore human relations and other issues in a way that is thought-provoking and (for some) deeply powerful). I also agree that our philosophical confusions may reflect deeper things about us, but I try to avoid putting too much emphasis on that because then highly personal and speculative claims get mixed in with the work of conceptual clarification, which aims to be non-substantive (and certainly not speculative or controversial). So I am not denying that there are interesting things one could do or say – only arguing that there are good reasons for making a clear distinction between these and what I see Wittgenstein as trying to do.

      • Philip says:

        Two comments by Wittgenstein might be worth considering. First, the one in CV where he says it is humiliating to have to regard oneself as a tube inflated by a mind. Secondly, his claim that his philosophy was a type of propaganda aimed against the idolatry of science. Neither, it seems to me, is particularly compatible with the idea that adhering to a philosophical theory is entirely without substantive consequences (I’m not saying that’s your position). And neither is easily squared with the quietist reading of Wittgenstein’s philosophy.

        • Paul says:

          I would see the first comment as being a personal comment/reflection rather than part of his work of conceptual clarification (although of course this type of distinction may seem artificial and even if one does not reject it, there is no authoritative way of drawing the boundary line). As far as the second comment is concerned, there are various things I would say. Obviously, aiming for clarity is not neutral between confusion and clarity, but more than that there is a choice involved. Wittgenstein’s approach (for me) involves giving top priority to clarity, but you could take a different approach and argue that the odd bit of confusion is not a problem as long as you get to somewhere interesting. So you start with the question: “what is Time?” and rather than working out all the things that are confused and confusing about this question, you reflect on what time means for us and end up with a meditation on human life that may be superficial or profound or a bit of both. Even if a Wittgensteinian approach enabled you to understand fully what was wrong with the original question and in that sense definitely resolved it as a problem, it is not clear that everyone would see this as better than a confused and confusing discussion that did not resolve the problem but helped (some) people in their thoughts about life. As I see it, W is clearly not against reflecting interesting on life, but he sees that as a very private thing (and tended to get very annoyed with “interesting reflections” that he considered stupid) and like an engineer or a businessman thinks that if you look at these questions in a certain way, then you can actually get them sorted (or at least sort out the bits that are definitely and enduringly sortable).

          The final point I would make is that even our confusions are not as it were without a tendency. So my preoccupation with a particular confusion/problem may well reflect things about me – for example, I suspect that solipsism was more of a burning personal issue for Wittgenstein than for, say, Bertrand Russell. Similarly, our preoccupations and confusions may reflect the times we live in – I do think we live in a culture that in many ways dehumanises us and so confused arguments that fit in with that culture will tend to be pretty powerful. But that claim rests on a personal (and substantive) view of the human and I am certainly not saying that anyone who denies that our culture is dehumanising must be conceptually confused. So I do think that there are various ways in which Wittgenstein’s approach is substantive (and reflects who he was as an individual and the time he/we live in), but I also think that it is really powerful if you want to have your confusions sorted out and that its power comes from not seeking to establish anything that anyone might seriously disagree with.


  1. [...] Does Wittgenstein offer a talking cure for philosophers? is a post from: Wittgenstein and Freud [...]