Analytic Philosophy Anti-Philosophy

‘Philosophy’ has always been bunk, 18: later Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein graduated to another opinion (see my second chapter on him) when he said that many of Philosophy’s important words, such as Truth, Beauty, Courage, and the Good, don’t even apply to specific entities.

Plato had previously said (see my chapter on him) that these were such real entities, that they existed in all realness in some kind of heaven!

No, said W., such words simply have their meanings in what the speaker intends them to mean, in front of an audience who understands his meanings. This is what he called a ‘language-game’.  So, much of Philosophy has been wasting its time and should stick henceforward to curing its mistakes of language.

So, in the 1930s, he turned Philosophy into Linguistic Analysis in half the Western world.  But it was still listed under ‘Philosophy’, and strangely enough became even more lacking in ‘human sensibility to human life’ — one only has to look at Quine (see later chapter) and at Kripke.

But the problem with words for me was even more basic.  Words, I dimly felt, were only pedestrian ways of expressing what came to Man long ago via his senses and in his knowing of his own thoughts and feelings.  So words and their logic are a poor stammering second, but the philosopher puts them first in his verbal-logical search for Truths. 

Philosophers’ problems, or at least some of them, are created by the inexactitudes of words in ‘natural language’ (the languages we actually use) and they then use more language to try and solve them 

Amid these verbal conundrums they have tried to solve, there are perhaps some that are part of the mystery of being human.  But these mysteries are imponderable to logic (and I suddenly can’t give any examples).


The later Wittgenstein was already drifting away from his original thoughts (which I had summarized here).  He began to think now that meaningful language wasn’t just the picturing of sensory or scientific facts in the world (as well as logic and maths).  He did such a volte-face that he now said in effect: Words mean what you use them for in the context you share with your audience (i.e. the ‘language-game’ you are all in), and may not refer to entities at all!  (You don’t say!)

This must have been very upsetting to the Vienna Circle who had already formed his earlier thoughts into their school of Logical Positivism.  

Yet meeting them re-stimulated his interest in philosophy which he had grown tired of.   He now thought that his earlier claims that he had achieved a final analysis of language were mistaken!  

This later position of Wittgenstein was published some 20 years later in his Philosophical Investigations (1953), which was prepared for publication by others after his death.  This site here tells us that it is brilliantly aphoristic but reads in places like disconnected paragraphs.  As shown in my first paragraph above, it focussed largely on language and psychology, not on logic and objective truth as in his earlier Tractatus.  It became just as influential.

Let me re-iterate this new theory of Wittgenstein’s:  It is that meaningfulness of language isn’t rigidly limited to whether it makes pictures representing sensorily or scientifically verified facts in the world (plus logic and maths).  He now said that meaningful words can also express one’s feelings or  values (You don’t say!).  He now thought that language has meaning in what one uses it for, in the community one is speaking to.  ‘God’, for example, isn’t a fact to many people, but He is to others.  So the word ‘God’ has meaning to them.  So W. was saying that what one says has the meaning one intends it for, in the community one is speaking to!  (You don’t say!).  He called this kind of thing a ‘language-game’, each game having its own rules.

This was a break from the classical philosophic view that meaning is purely representation (still believed in by the early W. that words are pictures of facts).  W. also now said that there are ‘special-purpose’ concepts like Truth, Beauty and the Good, and that these have their meanings entirely in their uses, and don’t refer to entities at all! There is no such entity as Truth or Beauty or the Good!  (as I understood from here.) 

W. and Russell had already shown in their Logical Atomism that all previous Philosophy had made a language mistake in not recognizing that many statements consisted logically of smaller constituent statements, and that uncovering them solved the philosophical ‘problem’ in many cases. Now W. was also saying that many of the resounding words we use, such as Truth, don’t refer to entities at all! 

According to W., philosophers had always done logical analysis (not the linguistic analysis that they should first have done) to solve problems (such as the problem of “free will”, the relationship between “mind” and “matter”, what is “the good” or “the beautiful” and so on).  But these were pseudo-problems that arose from philosopher’s misuse of language.’(from here

W. said that just because empirical concepts like ‘red’, ‘magnetic’ or ‘alive’ each stand for a specific property, one shouldn’t think that ‘Truth’ does so too.  W. pointed out that ‘special-purpose concepts’ like Truth, The Good, Object, Person (and Beauty?) have no essence and can’t be reduced to a single meaning or  definition as can the empirical concepts that scientists deal with, (as I understand from Horwich.) 

Horwich uses the term ‘conceptual pluralism’ for W.’s idea that special purpose concepts like ‘Truth’ each have several uses in several language-games, and aren’t reducible to anything singular.

 I remember that when I started studying Philosophy and  imagined myself in the crowd around Socrates and being asked a question like ‘What is Truth?’,  I felt completely agape.  Was it because I just couldn’t see Truth as any single entity or thing at all?  But I was unable to articulate it.

That is the gist of the later W.   I have added further details and additions below:

Philosophers had assumed that Truth had a single nature which all true statements share. Some of them said that Truth (and therefore all truths) correspond to reality, others that all truths are useful, or are rationally coherent, and so on.  Each of these views falls short of encompassing the essence of Truth, (as I understand, and for the next three paragraphs, from here.)

But W. now said that really the word ‘Truth’ or ‘True’is simply a word with different uses.  It might be used as a way of economizing on words, like when one says ‘e=mc2 is true’ instead of saying ‘it is the case that e=mc2′.  Or when one says ‘Einstein’s last words were true’ instead of ‘Einstein’s last words were that E=mc2, and E does equal mc2 ‘.           

(Actually, as a side-issue, saying that a statement is true is equivalent to the statement itself.  So, “e=mc2 is true” is equivalent to ‘E=mc2”, which saves even more words. as i got fron m one of these sites.)   

The concept of Truth is precisely such mutiple trivial uses, and the search for a single entity, let alone Plato’s metaphysical entity in  heaven, was always a language-mistake (as I understood from here).

So Wittgenstein urged philosophers to “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” (from here.)  This kind of opinion of the later W. ushered in the era of Ordinary Language Philosophy which was something specific within Analytic Philosphy as a whole, (from here,)

For the later Wittgenstein, the job of philosophy should now be ‘the treatment of an illness’, the illness being ‘the bewitchment of intelligence by language’.  Is this latter statement close to saying that all philosophers should do is to correct language mistakes that scientists and others make and which vitiate their work? (I ask this question after reading this site here in its post on Analytic Philosophy: Language Games). 

Wittgenstein pointed out mistakes that should have been so obvious and elementary from the very beginning of Philosophy, yet philosophers never saw them and had kept going and teaching and passing on their way of thinking.   (To me, there’s even more basic mistakes in philosphical thinking than Russell and Wittgenstein thought of, one of them being the basically potty idea  that logicking with words supersedes what comes to one in one’s senses, when it is words that derive from our sensual information. — That’s the nearest I can presently conceive it.)  

Whenever my own mind strayed onto such logicking as philosophers do, I felt I was in an obsessively useless pursuit that the human mind is heir to, and hurried to get out.  But it was beyond my capacity to articulate these feelings.

I would have thought that the arguments of the early and late W. would have brought Philosophy to an end, and that analysis of language-mistakes would now simply be a sub-speciality within Linguistics.  But no, it has continued as ‘Analytic Philosophy’. 

Bertrand Russell, probably at this later stage of W.’s thinking , complained (according to here) that W. had “grown tired of serious thinking and invented a doctrine which would make [it] unnecessary.”   Wittgenstein on his side came to think of Russell as “superficial and glib.” (from here).

Lynch says that W. was over-generalizing when he said that Philosophy should only correct language mistakes.  No, says Lynch, philosophy can improve our way of thinking and acting on ethical questions.  Socrates did so.  The Enlightenment philosophers, too, improved humanity when they said we should base our beliefs on rational evidence. And Locke came up with the theory that there are human rights. (as I understood from Lynch.) 

W. was right however, says Lynch, to show that special-purpose concepts shouldn’t have been been turned into metaphysical entities.  Yet, writes Lynch, even when we accept these special-purpose words as just being concepts in ordinary language, they turn out themselves to be historically-shaped metaphysical assumptions.  (I don’t think Lynch gives examples and I haven’t understood.)

Here are some more terms that people have used about W.’s thinking and which I don’t want to omit: 

Horwich uses the term ‘scientistic’ for W.’s view of what Philosophy had always been trying to do. This was trying to ‘arrive at simple, general principles, and to uncover profound explanations, and to correct naïve opinions.’ 

Wittgenstein  writes in his The Blue Book: ‘Our craving for generality has [.. one] source …the method of science….of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization.  … This…is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness.  I want to say…that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.” ‘

I think that excerpt in the last paragraph from W.’s The Blue Book means that armchair logicking can’t arrive at knowledge like science does; it can only prevent language-mistakes.  (I think that Philosophy was forced into thinking it had to provide knowledge because empirical science only arrived 2000 years later.) 

Trying to find a single essence for each special-purpose concept led the ancient philosophers into the fallacies of metaphysics.  And in other ways too, philosophers are tempted to ask and answer in the way science does.  

(‘Descriptive’, in the above excerpt from W., seems to me a strange word to use, particularly in that Russell had used ‘descriptive knowledge’ for knowledge derived from others rather than from one’s own direct sensory acquaintance (see here).  But someone has implied that W. was here using ‘descriptive’ for ‘linguistically analytic’; someone else for ‘elucidatory’.  These two views mean that W.was using ‘descriptive’ for ‘the correcting of language-mistakes’.)  

Lynch uses the term ‘reductive explanation’ for ‘scientism’:  A reductive explanation of X tells us the essence of X, what all and only X’s have in common.  To repeat what I’ve already said above, Wittgenstein said that each special-purpose concept has many meanings, and isn’t an entity with an essence.

Here is something from here, almost verbatim in places:  Wittgenstein had said in the Tractatus that ‘philosophy is not one of the natural sciences’ but ‘aims at the logical clarification of thoughts’.  Philosophy is not descriptive but elucidatory.  (I think ‘descriptive’ here means what science tries to do.) Philosophy’s aim is to clear up confusion.  Philosophers should not concern themselves so much with what is actual, for example keeping up with the latest popularization of science.  The philosopher’s job should be with the possible, or rather with the conceivable. ‘This depends on our concepts and the ways they fit together as seen in language. What is conceivable and what is not, what makes sense and what does not, depends on the rules of language, of grammar.’  (The last three sentences still need some clarification for me but seem to mean that Philosophy should stick to ensuring the correctness of our concepts in their meanings, uses and relationships.  Those last words of mine need precision and exemplification.)

To re-emphasize what I have already said: W. said that philosophy, because of its inevitably armchair logicking in the mind alone, cannot provide knowledge.  One can’t discover truths about the world from other than sensory or scientific experience. Philosophy can only arrive at conceptual, analytic, a priori truths (from here).  It can only correct language mistakes.  The philosopher, said W., has always presumed to produce theories on such lofty matters as the nature of consciousness, how knowledge of the external world is possible, whether our decisions can be truly free, about the structure of a just society, and so on, by means of pure reasoning — by logical deduction and sophisticated supporting arguments (from here).  But, said W., such purely mental activity cannot provide fundamental insights into the human condition or the ultimate character of the universe, or  how we are to arrange our lives.

W. also thought ‘that traditional philosophy is necessarily pervaded with oversimplification, analogies unreasonably inflated, exceptions to simple regularities wrongly dismissed’. (One needs examples of these.)  (Philosophers, I have felt, also draw on banal examples from human life and speech, but this may be because of their kind of mind).

I think that students of Philosophy should be informed, from the beginning, of the scepticism of  the early and late Wittgenstein towards Philosophy.  This would have helped orientate diffidents like me who were puzzled at why Philosophy always sounded so foolish and wrong-headed and consisting of false problems caused by mistakes in language and logic. 

I don’t think that even scientific method can provide truths on human questions, certainly whenever the individual self is involved.  For that one needs a ‘human sensibility to human life’ which scientists and philosophers just haven’t got the right kind of mind for.

At a lower level, I am still astonished that philosophers as late as the Rationalists of the 18th century and the Idealists of the 19th century still had the same faith in the abilities of pure reason as the ancient Greeks did.

[The topic of ‘private language’ was something that bothered W., and which I haven’t grasped at all:  He said it was impossible to have a private language to express one’s own experiences and inner mental states.  That follows, I suspect, from his view that one’s words and their meanings can only exist in a social language-game.  This seems also to have been seen as a refutation of Descartes’ Cogito, ergo sum!]

[Towards the end of his life, he was still bothering with such things as ‘external world scepticism’ — whether one can be certain there is a world out there and not just in one’s mind!  To me, it seems a typical pseudo-problem of Philosophy that shouldn’t have bothered him, the sort of thing that would have worried Descartes.]   

No Comments Found

Leave a Reply