Few philosophers are so widely invoked and so rarely read as Ludwig Wittgenstein. To this circumstance we owe the near-exclusively “Analytic” tilt of American philosophy departments in general and Princeton’s in particular.
The whole project of Philosophical Analysis rests on the view that Wittgenstein, particularly in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, shut the door on all prior, non-Analytic philosophy and revealed the single correct method: “To say nothing except what can be said,” meaning only pure logic, science, and the condemnation of everything metaphysical…and if this sounds overstated, consider that the well-liked professor of philosophy Hans Halvorson once said in lecture, only half-facetiously, that “Hegel should be burned — it is an abomination for him to be taught down the hall,” as if every word weren’t annulled by the noble new tradition presently obtaining at Princeton and elsewhere.
In keeping with the noble new tradition, “German Philosophy” isn’t called here a course in philosophy, while “Introduction to Formal Semantics,” whose discipline sees itself as a science, is.
The philosophical movement of Analysis shows up everywhere today — even in the more and more scientific character of fields like history and sociology: the shift from German Idealism to Analysis parallels the shift from the expansive historical and sociological surveys of old to today’s fads of pseudo-scientific “microhistory” and “microsociology,” in which the greatest sin one can commit is a generalization.[note]A history thesis today has a topic like “changes in wheat prices between 1880 and 1890 in northern France,” and if one tries to tackle a topic of any size whatever one is taken unseriously.[/note]
Less hazily, subjects like formal Syntax and Semantics, which don’t consciously invoke Wittgenstein, still latently rest on the Analytic revolution fueled by his Tractatus in the early 20th century. (The object of Semantics, for example, is to create a theory of meaning written in formal Logic.)[note]Semantics preceded Wittgenstein but was propelled by him.[/note]
Even the ironic spirit of our age3 (and the general feeling that saying something meaningful or metaphysical is uncool, which thankfully is waning) in a way originated with the spirit of Wittgenstein’s most famous sentence: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
The point is that the world has moved toward the attitude of Analysis, and this movement is hardly talked about—including and especially its central philosopher.
Wittgenstein, meanwhile, would turn in his grave if he knew that this is what had grown from his work. The core tenets of Analysis are really in the clearest contradiction with the words that Wittgenstein wrote in the Tractatus and elsewhere.
There would thus be no problem if Wittgenstein were diligently read and taught in the departments that quietly rely on his work—but he isn’t.
This semester, for example, he is being read only in one graduate-level course on early 20th century German literature, while Heidegger is a main figure five courses, Kant in three, Locke in four, Marx in five, Rousseau in three, and so on.
Last semester, Wittgenstein was taught only in “Philosophical Analysis from 1900 to 1950,” in which the Tractatus is glossed over: when I took the course in Fall 2014, we summarized incorrectly his “picture theory of language,” read proposition 6.53 (see below), and ignored the rest.
Previous semesters are more or less the same.
Meanwhile, in the classes that actually put the creed of Analysis to work (Semantics, Philosophical Logic, and so on), the task is always taken up without thought for its justification, as if there are no questions to ask. The questions reroute in part to Wittgenstein—but then he is never read seriously.
He therefore remains a shadowy figure who most students know of but don’t know. And then we’re asked to place this shadow at the center of contemporary thought.
Here are some main points of difference between the Wittgenstein who is invoked by philosophy today and the Wittgenstein who actually lived and wrote.
The Analytic philosophers claim that no line separates science from philosophy: one is the same as the other. While, in the Tractatus, Wittgenstein wrote:
The whole modern view of the world rests on the illusion that the so-called naturals laws are explanations of natural phenomena.
So people stop short at the natural laws as something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate.
And they are both right and wrong. But the ancients were clearer, insofar as they recognized a clear terminus, whereas in the modern view it appears as though everything were to be explained.
This view hardened as Wittgenstein aged. (Although late Wittgenstein always lay waiting in early Wittgenstein.) From a later work: “Man has to awaken to wonder—and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again.” While philosophy is wonder.
In keeping with their self-perception as “science,” the Analytic fields deal with only small problems at a time, in the hope that many small and irrefutable solutions will build to big answers, as in, for instance, biology. (No Analytic field has so far found a “big answer.”)
The Tractatus has the opposite view. The parts of the book that deal with actual questions of formal logic turn out not to matter by the end, while the parts that deal artistically with the nature of the world do.
And see Wittgenstein’s advice from his notes: “Don’t get involved in partial problems, but always take flight to where there is a free view over the single great problem, even if this view is still not a clear one.”
All Analytic fields assume that logic is something other than language—that it lies outside language. But the final conviction of the Tractatus is the opposite. (Every logical statement is said in language; logic exists through language; that the word “and” is now symbolized by the operator “^” changes nothing.)[note]No definition of the operation ^ can escape the word “and.”[/note]
The proposition of the Tractatus most often invoked by Analysis is this one:
The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other—he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy—but it would be the only strictly correct method. (6.53)
But in the context of the surrounding propositions, it’s clear that 6.53 is a piece of rhetorical irony, meant to reveal an absurdity, not the right way of thinking.[note]The preceding proposition: “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.” The following: “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.” Part 6 of the Tractatus is about the futility of Science, Logic, and Analysis. This is as clear as day![/note]
5- Everyone, including the Analytic philosopher, knows that the Tractatus self-destructs. But, having admitted this fact, he proceeds to ignore it.[note]So also with the fleet of Analytic philosophers who move toward correct interpretations of Wittgenstein and then continue in the work of pure Analysis. There is always a low-level disdain for the man at the bottom of their field but no refutation of his ideas. [/note]
After Wittgenstein defended the Tractatus as his doctoral thesis to Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, as the three men stood up and walked to the door, Wittgenstein patted the two world-famous philosophers on their backs and said, “Don’t worry. I know you’ll never understand.”
Years later, when they would ask him questions, often he would turn his back and recite poetry.
That same thing which was lost on Russell and Moore is lost on today’s Analytic philosophers.
In truth, there is much to be said about this elusive “second half” of the Tractatus, and further about Wittgenstein’s having not shut the door on all prior philosophy but propped it open—and this is not the place. But a good start would be to read the man, and then to remember not only what is convenient.
One thought on “Wittgenstein in Shadow”
not sure this is a good characterization of the history or current practice of so-called analytic philosophy. not being historians or social theorists we wouldn’t have the gall to comment definitively. a number of fairly glib generalizations and assertions, and no “analysis” of analysis to speak of. some (it would seem) off-base cultural commentary thrown in parenthetically. points for the mini sections–almost like the tractatus! demerits for the footnotes. appreciate the effort. B+