Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?

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I’ve mentioned before my view that the later Wittgenstein, nearly three quarters of a century ago, persuasively showed the hopelessness of most of the linguistic puzzle-solving that dominates academic philosophy today. Wittgenstein’s later work shows why the puzzles cannot be solved, why there is no need to solve them, and why attempts to solve the puzzles will only lead to interminable philosophical disputes.

Of course, many professional philosophers seem unaware of Wittgenstein’s critique of what they do, or perhaps unable to understand the critique due to methodological blinders unwittingly slipped on during their training. At the very least, many professional philosophers seem unwilling to accept the implications of Wittgenstein’s critique for their own work. At this point, I doubt there’s much that anyone can say that will succeed in changing the minds of those philosophers who have already committed themselves to a life of the mind hopeless puzzle-solving.

My question here, and hopefully in a few subsequent posts, will be different. Leaving puzzle-solving philosophy to itself, I want to ask: for those who understand and accept Wittgenstein’s critique, what is philosophy supposed to do? Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?

This is related to a common objection to the later Wittgenstein: his critique of problem-solving philosophy can’t possibly be right, because then there would be nothing for philosophy to do. I’ve always found this objection absurd—why should we assume that there must be something for philosophy to do? There’s nothing for alchemy to do, once we realize it’s based on a fantasy. But the objection overlaps with a legitimate concern that I imagine has been shared by many people who have been both attracted to philosophy and persuaded by Wittgenstein’s critique of a certain kind of philosophy—the kind that happens to be dominant in nearly all anglophone philosophy departments today. Assuming Wittgenstein is correct, and there are no correct answers to the kinds of linguistic puzzles that occupy most contemporary academic philosophers’ attention, does this mean philosophy comes to an end? What should philosophers do, if not try to solve these kinds of philosophical problems?

Wittgenstein’s own answer would seem to be: philosophy will continue, potentially endlessly, because new philosophical problems will continue to arise and captivate us. These problems will all be baseless, so philosophy should be exclusively therapeutic, showing how various philosophical problems cannot and need not be solved. The process of therapy will be endless. Using the therapeutic methods Wittgenstein illustrates throughout his later writings, we should perpetually “show the fly the way out of the flybottle,” making it possible to stop doing philosophy whenever we want to.

I don’t think I’m alone in finding this answer unsatisfying. It would be hard to look forward to a philosophical future consisting entirely of the laborious dissolution of unnecessary problems arising from linguistic misunderstandings, alongside misguided attempts to solve the problems by those who have not yet been converted to the Wittgensteinian gospel. It is true that Wittgenstein’s philosophical therapy requires creativity and can lead to interesting observations and analogies. In the process of dissolving problems—as a byproduct of the therapy—it can give us a better understanding of how different aspects of our uses of language work. Also, it should be noted that it takes a real effort to see clearly why any given philosophical problem arises, and the work is different in each case, even if the ultimate result is the same. You can see Wittgenstein struggling with problems throughout his later writings, changing his approach, trying new analogies, etc. He doesn’t simply offer a mechanical algorithm for dissolving every philosophical problem in a quick series of easy steps. So it’s not as though Wittgensteinian therapy is entirely uninteresting.

But the repetitive practice of Wittgensteinian therapy also isn’t exactly inspiring. It would be hard to see a future of perpetual therapy as a glorious one. The punchline is always the same: no solution, and no need for a solution. That is all. Please return to your workstations.

I suppose things might be somewhat different if one found oneself continually transfixed, even against one’s will, by new philosophical problems—as Wittgenstein may have been. Then it would truly be necessary to engage in philosophical therapy over and over again, in order to free oneself from the visceral need to solve the problems. But not everyone feels this need, especially after reading Wittgenstein. One can gain an understanding of how the philosophical problem-game works. After that, one may recognize philosophical problems as philosophical problems soon after encountering them, and one may understand more or less immediately why no solution will be possible. The fly never enters the flybottle. One sees that the demand for a solution is a demand for logical perfection where none exists. It would take work to show, in detail, the precise ways in which the relevant natural language terms in this case are governed by logically imperfect rules, and why someone might be tempted to perfect the imperfect rules governing the terms in one way or another way. But the work seems unnecessary, a little like polishing silverware that is about to be melted down.

We already know how everything will turn out. It’s not as though anyone is going to discover that this time, natural language really is like formal logic, thereby permitting a clear, determinate answer—or that this time, there are magical and yet consensually discernable relations between our words and the features of some extralinguistic reality that dictate the single, universally correct way of using the words…

The followers of the literary critic Paul De Man used to have a self-congratulatory line about how his influence could be seen in all the works that his students didn’t write after being exposed to his revelatory thought, because he was so successful in problematizing the normal modes of literary criticism, such as paraphrase. I’ve always come away from reading De Man with the sense that he was a charismatic charlatan, appealing to those students of literature who want to belong to an elegantly black-clad, elusively gazing, vaguely European priesthood based around the ritual discovery of mysterious, hidden, apocalyptic conflicts within famous works of literature. De Man’s method always struck me as both boringly mechanistic and based on absurd reasoning. It seemed to work like this: One begins by arbitrarily identifying the literary work at hand with some rhetorical figure, such as synecdoche or chiasmus; then one arbitrarily focuses on one of the countless thematic meanings that can plausibly be drawn from the work; next, one describes the rhetorical figure and the thematic meaning (often unpersuasively) as somehow inconsistent—and finally, in the apocalyptic coup de grâce, one infers from this evidence that therefore reading is impossible! (When I later read about the revelations of De Man’s long-hidden history of financial crimes, self-promoting frauds, and personal betrayals, or the earlier revelation of his youthful expressions of anti-Semitism and enthusiastic engagement with Nazi-controlled publications in occupied Belgium, I could only think: well, this might not prove anything, but it certainly doesn’t make me question my initial response…)

In any case, what De Man’s followers said of him may actually be true of the later Wittgenstein. I suspect that many students who have read and understood Wittgenstein’s critique of philosophy have simply abandoned philosophical problem-solving, and perhaps abandoned philosophy altogether. I remember an anecdote by the Oxford philosopher Stephen Mulhall, in the introduction to an anthology of writings by Stanley Cavell, where Mulhall writes about nearly giving up on philosophy after being exposed to the later Wittgenstein. One of Wittgenstein’s students or editors—maybe Bouwsma?—also mentions something similar, describing in an essay how he would teach his students the Wittgensteinian way of approaching a philosophical problem, and after a while, they would get it and no longer bother approaching philosophical problems in the way they had before.

So: for those who find Wittgenstein’s critique of contemporary philosophical problem-solving compelling, but who resist the idea that philosophy should be nothing more than Wittgensteinian therapy, where can philosophy go?

Stanley Cavell’s career can be seen as an attempt to provide one answer. Cavell understands the later Wittgenstein, and launched his career in part based on a review that protested against the methodologically stunted misreading of the later Wittgenstein by some academic philosophers (“The availability of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy,” 1962). Having recognized the futility of the standard problem-solving methods, Cavell set out to explore new and different directions. He wrote about film, literature, varieties of moral perfectionism. He developed a distinctive, elliptical way of writing philosophy that some found entrancing and rich, and others found digressive and infuriating.

It’s been years since I’ve tried reading Cavell. I really wanted to find in him a way forward from Wittgenstein. I think this is what Mulhall himself found in Cavell. But I never could. I remember spending hours reading Cavell’s essays, and starting and stopping The Claim of Reason, and turning to some secondary literature. Eventually I gave up because I kept finding nothing in particular that I could take away from what I was reading. The writing never seemed to come to a valuable point, or be informed by an overarching vision that would itself be the point. It was like one great circumlocution—a circumlocution whose circumference was everywhere and whose center was nowhere. In the spirit of Wallace Stevens, much of Cavell’s writing feels like notes toward a thesis, where the thesis never arrives. This can be charming in a John Ashbery poem, but it’s not what I (personally) look for in philosophy. I want something more than an interesting or distinctive reading experience. I want ideas.

Plato, Hegel, and Heidegger, for example, offer visions of how everything fits together, in the broadest possible senses. You may find their visions absurd. But they offer the materials for a new way of thinking about the world. You can look at absolutely anything and understand it in Heideggerian terms. You can look at a sidewalk and think of how it shows up in one’s awareness as something-on-which-to-walk, and how this particular showing-up is only possible because of one’s potential need to walk-on-something, which is itself made possible by one’s ontological finitude. And so on. The same could be said of Plato and the theory of forms. You can use it to make sense of everything in your world. Whether one chooses to see the world in these ways or not, the creation of a new way of seeing is a remarkable achievement.

Cavell doesn’t offer a vision like this, and doesn’t try to. To my own regret, I have never been able to figure out what those like Mulhall have found that he does offer, beyond a very original and enigmatic style of philosophical writing. So for me at least, Cavell is not a compelling path forward from the later Wittgenstein.

The question I hope to explore in subsequent posts is: what are some paths forward that are open to us?


5 thoughts on “Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?

  1. Great post! Funny you should mention Cavell. I’ve been thinking more about him lately for roughly the same reasons you give here: namely, once conceptual analysis is set aside, perhaps philosophy is better spent engaging in thinking through literature, film, and yes, life…things that actually matter.

    Still, I’m not quite as pessimistic as you and Wittgenstein are about philosophical problems. Too much philosophy today is conceptual analysis. But not all is. In fact, I would wager quite a lot of it isn’t. I don’t think Rawls was doing conceptual analysis; he was trying to engage with people’s moral sensibilities! I don’t think Aristotle was doing conceptual analysis when he was making arguments about the nature of virtue. And I don’t think I’m doing conceptual analysis in most of my work! Philosophical problems are real, and philosophy is worth doing. There are just certain types of it that aren’t…and unfortunately people keep getting bewitched by that kind. :/

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