Why Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein has fascinated me since I first came across him at university. His writings were very different from other philosophers, and his later philosophy seemed to me to sort things out so comprehensively that I gave up philosophy and never pursued an academic career. Now I am coming back to Wittgenstein with different eyes and it will be interesting to see what I (and you) make of it all. This site is a place for sharing my thoughts on Wittgenstein and hopefully getting a bit of feedback from others.

That Wittgenstein should fascinate a young philosophy student is not at all surprising. Born into a wealthy Viennese family, Wittgenstein gave all his money away and despite his fame as a philosopher never sought worldly or financial success.  As all this may suggest, he was an intense passionate man who rarely did things by halves. Ultimately, however, what matters is what he said and wrote. Keen  to get to the bottom of things, he was impatient with philosophical speculations that got nowhere. As he said to his friend M O’C Drury, “my father was a businessman and I am a businessman: I want my philosophy to get something done, to get something settled”.

Wanting to put an end to speculation is not unusual – most philosophers have had the same ambition only for their own work to be seen by others as itself speculative. More recently, there have been plenty of writers who have wanted to silence philosophy by claiming that science can provide the answers to its questions. But Wittgenstein was neither a speculator nor a reductionist. He wanted to cut through what he saw as the confusions of philosophers but he did not claim that the deeper questions about life were meaningless or had been resolved. He thought that if you did philosophy the right way, you could clear up a lot of confusions, but the real questions of life would be left untouched.

One way of highlighting the distinctiveness of this approach is to note that it involves distinguishing between clarity and wisdom. Philosophy (as the word suggests) has been about the search for wisdom, but Wittgenstein did not believe that wisdom could be achieved in an impersonal way via the exercise of reason. For him, answering the deeper questions of life was a personal matter and one where reasonable people might reach very different conclusions without any guarantee that any amount of discussion could ever bring them to agreement (or establish the correct answer).

So Wittgenstein rejected the traditional conception of philosophy (and the traditional role of the philosopher). But he still thought there was an important and difficult job of work to be done. He thought the confusions of philosophy were hard to unravel and he saw those confusions as spilling over into other disciplines (e.g. mathematics and psychology) and as colouring everyday discussions. So what are these confusions?

Let’s consider a few examples. A favourite (and so-what annoying) game we used to play at university was to ask non-philosophy friends what colour tomatoes were in the dark. Some people would say “black”, but then realise that they didn’t really want to say that the tomatoes changed colour every time the light switch was turned on or off. Others would say “red” and feel a bit confused because in the dark they don’t look red and yet the concept red seems to be all about appearance. This may seem (and is) a trivial example and pretty easy to unravel, indeed, some may not see it as confusing at all. But it does illustrate how even the most everyday concept can suddenly seem puzzling when we come at them from an unexpected angle.

Take a rather grander example, time travel. Most people would see this as at least theoretically possible. But why do they say that? Probably not because of anything Einstein said! Rather their conviction comes from seeing time as the fourth dimension and assimilating it to the other three. Just as movement between any two physical points is in theory a possibility, surely movement between any two temporal points must be possible? If movement in space is not uni-directional, why should movement in time be? This may seem self-evident, but, if you consider the unavoidable paradoxes of time travel, it becomes much less clear what one ought to think.

Or take another example. A lot of people would probably agree that it is a question of when rather than if machines acquire consciousness. But why do they say that? Is an iPhone closer to consciousness than one of the early telephones? Is the IBM machine that beat the experts at Jeopardy better at thinking than a 1960’s IBM mainframe? As we reflect on this, it should become clear that we are much less comfortable with these concepts than we like to believe – what really is at stake when we wonder whether machines will ever be conscious? Does a dog think in the same sense as Stephen Hawkings? And if computers do come to think, will they initially think like dogs and then eventually like Hawkings or will they immediately jump to Hawking’s level or beyond (if one can talk of levels)?

The reason for studying Wittgenstein is to become better equipped at dealing with these sorts of questions. I think he really did show how an awful lot of philosophical (and everyday) confusions can be unraveled. Studying philosophy with Wittgenstein we can become more comfortable manipulating concepts and less likely to fall into confusion. What Wittgenstein won’t deliver are any great philosophical answers. You may become better at working with concepts, but you won’t be any further forward in deciding what to make of life (and how to act). In some ways that may seem a bad thing, but in other ways it is not. In any event, that’s how it is :-)