Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Wittgensteinian philosophical history

Free Photo: Columns at the Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek

One of the remarkable features of Wittgenstein’s thought is its startling lack of concern for or interest in the history of philosophy. Wittgenstein apparently stated with pride that he had never read a word of Aristotle, and his occasional references to Heidegger and Kierkegaard suggest that he read them more as sources of poetic insight into the human condition than as sources of contestable philosophical theses.

When Wittgenstein writes critically of “philosophy” in his later writings—that is, when he is not using the term “philosophy” to refer to his own preferred mode of therapeutic problem-relief—he almost always seems to have in mind the kind of analytic-style philosophical problem-solving practiced by Cambridge philosophers such as Russell and Moore. It is unclear how he would criticize, or indeed if he would criticize, the sort of philosophical writing produced by other philosophical traditions, whether ancient or modern—or for that matter, non-Western or Western.

So, following up on previous posts on this topic (“Where can philosophy go after Wittgenstein?“), one way forward from the later Wittgenstein might simply be to ask: what would it be like to read other philosophical traditions through the lens of Wittgenstein’s later works? What would an encounter look like between Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods and the dialogues of Plato, or the science of logic of Hegel? What might a therapeutic Wittgensteinian think about Heidegger’s ontological claims, or Derrida’s playfully evasive transcendentalist moves? What might Wittgenstein have to say about various figures in, say, Chinese or Indian philosophy?

My sense is that usually, scholars who have tried to bring the later Wittgenstein into dialogue with non-analytic philosophical traditions have done so by arguing for hidden connections between Wittgenstein’s point of view and that of one or another non-analytic philosopher, such as Heidegger. This is the general approach taken by Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, and Charles Guignon, as well as Stephen Mulhall and Lee Braver. According to this approach, one might observe that Wittgenstein is anti-foundationalist in a similar way to Heidegger, or that he views practical experience as primary in a similar way. One can draw these kinds of substantive comparisons between Wittgenstein and any number of other philosophers or schools of philosophy—for example, by observing that Wittgenstein’s descriptions of what we say and do might be seen as a kind of phenomenology. In this approach, Wittgenstein is a philosopher with philosophical positions (or perhaps even theories) that can be compared and contrasted with the positions of other philosophers, just as one can compare and contrast the positions of Husserl and Heidegger, or Fichte and Kant.

Without necessarily denying that the later Wittgenstein could be fairly described as having a “point of view,” of even a “philosophical point of view,” what interests me here is the application of Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods to non-analytic philosophical writing. Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods, like those described by Sextus Empiricus (as Robert Fogelin has observed), do not require adopting any particular philosophical point of view. In theory, they could be used entirely instrumentally, without belief in anything in particular.

As I hope to elaborate in a later post, this isn’t exactly how I view Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods—or how Fogelin views them, for that matter. I see Wittgenstein’s methods as starting from everyday, revisable facts—common, shared beliefs about everyday things like apples and the use of words. We can imagine someone pretending to doubt these humble facts for the sake of argument, or in the spirit of Cartesian skepticism. But no one actually doubts them, at least in the down-to-earth way in which they are offered in the course of Wittgensteinian therapy. To the extent that Wittgensteinian therapy starts from these humble beliefs, I’d say it starts not from a position of absolute skepticism—total non-belief, if that’s even possible—but from belief in everyday observations with which one’s interlocutor can already be assumed to agree. The later Wittgenstein starts from these modest, everyday beliefs—these beliefs that are shared by all who share one’s “form of life,” and indeed whose sharing may in large part constitute what is shared in a form of life—and returns continually to them for grounding, rather than straying from them into the philosophical clouds through arbitrary inference.

Of course, these humble, changeable grounds are not the kind of ground that philosophers usually seek or claim to have found.

The question I’d like to see answered is what, say, Heidegger might look like if approached by a therapeutic Wittgensteinian in the same skeptical spirit in which Wittgenstein approached philosophers closer to his methodological roots in Cambridge. What might Wittgenstein’s therapeutic methods produce if applied to Being & Time? Would they show that Heidegger was held captive by misunderstandings about language? Or would the methods misfire somehow—like trying to give therapy to somehow who does not have the disease?

Answering this kind of question would take a lot of difficult work. There’s no way to simply extrapolate the results from any pre-existing work of which I’m aware, although there could be works of Wittgensteinian philosophical history (in the sense I have in mind) of which I’m unaware. In any case, I won’t attempt to do that work here. What I would like to suggest is that the kind of work toward which this post gestures could, conceivably, lead to new perspectives on non-analytic philosophical traditions, and that these new perspectives might be relevant to developing a way forward from the later Wittgenstein (other than quietism).

In closing, and solely for the purpose of clarifying what I have in mind, here are a few, tentative, preliminary thoughts about the application of Wittgensteinian therapy to Heidegger:

I question whether Heidegger can be fairly described as arriving at philosophical conclusions by drawing arbitrary inferences from logically imperfect natural-language raw materials, and presenting those inferences as necessary, in the manner of analytic philosophy and its methodological relatives. It’s unclear to me, at least without thinking about it further, what the raw materials or the inferences would be. Heidegger’s method in Being & Time seems to have more to do with paths opened up by Husserl’s idea of phenomenology and by the close, perhaps a little too close, perhaps esoteric reading of Aristotle than with analytic-style puzzle-solving.

One might be tempted to say: if Heidegger was bewitched by something, it doesn’t seem to have been a mistaken view of natural languages as analogous to formal logic.

But perhaps this lets Heidegger off the hook too easily. Analytic philosophers themselves do not explicitly defend the notion that the rules governing their natural language philosophical terms are logically perfect. Far from it. They are all too willing to acknowledge, for example, the existence of vagueness and ambiguity in philosophical terms—as a theoretical matter… and then to proceed to analyze and argue over the nature of vagueness and ambiguity using methods that would only make sense if vagueness, ambiguity, underdetermination, and inconsistency did not, in fact, pervade natural languages in the far-reaching ways that they demonstrably, empirically do. In other words, the analytic demand for a language of crystalline logical perfection is not an explicit, theoretical demand, but an implicit, practical premise—something that seems necessary to making sense of analytic-style problem-solving philosophers’ practices, their assertions and disputes. (More precisely: analytic-style problem-solving philosophers appear to reason and argue based on the implicit premise not that natural languages in general are logically perfect, but that the rules governing the correct use of the philosophical terms they are using at the moment are more logically perfect than the terms actually are—more clear, comprehensive, and consistent than the rules actually show themselves to be under close Wittgensteinian scrutiny.)

So the fact that Heidegger gives no indication of believing as a theoretical matter that natural languages are logically perfect does not by itself show that a Wittgensteinian critique of his work would be inappropriate.

One also has the sense when reading Heidegger, whether in an early lecture like Logic: The Question of Truth, in Being & Time, or even in the later, more rhetorically poetic works, that he believes he has discovered in some sense the underlying structure of experience, existence, meaning (“being”), whatever—take your pick of the broadest and most fundamental philosophical terms. Even as he resists settling upon any simple, stable, fixed description for this structure, one has the sense that he believes his answers are compelled by the structure, by the groundless ground that has been so long forgotten but that he has begun to recover. His conclusions, he seems to suggest, necessarily follow from—but from what? What are the premises, inferences, and conclusions in Heidegger, if any? Why must we speak as he does—or, if we are not compelled to do so, then why should we?

One answer might be that Heidegger arrives at his groundless ground through a Kantian route. The groundless ground is the condition of possibility for practical experience, which is itself the condition of possibility for theoretical experience.

But if this means that we must accept Heidegger’s conclusions because they follow necessarily by way of some kind of “transcendental deduction” from premises about our experience that cannot be denied—premises with which we already agree, or about which we must agree, or which can be somehow demonstrated with self-certainty, beyond the very possibility of dispute—if this is the reasoning upon which Heidegger’s conclusions rest, then the claim that we must agree with his conclusions is laughable, as virtually all appeals to transcendental argument turn out to be in philosophy. “Really? You think you’ve found premises with which no one can disagree, and that a grand, complicated, highly controversial philosophical theory can be derived from these premises with such logical security that no one can reasonably disagree with your conclusions? Really?” The closer one inspects any ambitious, philosophically interesting transcendental argument, the more the argument comes to resemble an attempt to build a full-scale skyscraper out of loose sand, gelatin, and aging string. Natural language terms just don’t possess the kind of steel-like precision and stability that would allow the completion of such a grand logical construction. To suggest that one can get all the way from noncontroversial facts about experience to Heidegger’s conclusions regarding the fundamental ontological structure of being—and that the path is guaranteed by logical necessity, such that no alternative conclusion could possibly be drawn from the initial noncontroversial facts—would require an almost fanatical suspension of disbelief.

Consider the following “hence,” taken more or less at random from Being & Time (II.6):

The existential-ontological constitution of Dasein’s totality is grounded in temporality. Hence the ecstatical projection of Being must be made possible by some primordial way in which ecstatical temporality temporalizes.

Does the second statement really follow as a matter of logical necessity from the first statement (and all that lies behind it)? I can see how one could move from the former to the latter, and why it might make sense to do so in light of Heidegger’s goals. In fact, I can see why the latter statement plays an integral role in Heidegger’s overall vision, and thus must be accepted if one is to accept the vision. But given that we are not required by logic or anything else to share Heidegger’s goals, the question remains: must we follow him even in this single inference as a matter of logic?

I question whether even Heidegger would insist on this point. It seems to miss his point, which is to express a vision of the fundamental structure of being that makes sense of everything, in the broadest sense. There must have been some kind of reasoning that led Heidegger toward his vision. But it seems misguided to think of that reasoning as logical. It seems to have been more creative, or perhaps interpretive, and guided by grand philosophical needs and projects.

Heidegger may shed light on these methodological questions in the Introduction to Being & Time. But my purpose here is not to tie up loose ends.

I remain uncertain about how the application of therapeutic Wittgensteinian methods to Heidegger and other post-Hegelians might turn out. Heidegger, Derrida, and so many other philosophers who could be described as “anti-foundationalist” in some sense, and thus might seem aligned with Wittgenstein’s skeptical rejection of various philosophical foundations, at the same time seem to believe they have discovered something—rather than having merely created a new way of thinking, speaking, reading—as though what they are saying is already latent in the way that we exist, such that inquiry into our condition leads somehow inevitably to what they say, or at least to playing the language games they play. (The fact that Heidegger and Derrida engage in uses of words that can be described as “language games” in Wittgenstein’s sense should be uncontroversial. Heidegger and Derrida often revise the specific terms used in their games, but the underlying rules of the games, at least over broad periods, remain stable enough that one is able to say whether someone is playing the game correctly or incorrectly, even when she uses terms that Heidegger or Derrida did not use.)

To the extent that post-Hegelian philosophy persists in its faith in transcendental argument (including, I would argue, Derrida’s “quasi-transcendental” argument), it remains dogmatically “foundationalist” in a way that the later Wittgenstein is not. As a result, Wittgensteinian therapy may be an appropriate response to these philosophies, although the therapy may involve different methods than those that Wittgenstein himself used in exploring analytic-style problem-solving.

But even in that case, critique may not be the most useful or productive response, especially if there is some other way of conceiving of the methods and results of post-Hegelian philosophy.

For my purposes, one of the great contributions of Derrida’s philosophy can be summed up using a modal verb: You can say these things.

One of the basic errors of analytic philosophy can be summed up using another modal verb: You cannot say these things.

So much of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy consists of attempts to clarify the scope of what we can say and what we must say. Against analytic philosophy and its relatives and descendants, Wittgenstein shows that the scope of what we can say is much more expansive than philosophers tend to think, and what we must say is much less so.

What remains unclear to me is how to make sense, from a Wittgensteinian starting point, of the pervasive hints in Derrida’s writing of a dogmatism that insists we must speak as he speaks and write as he writes, we all must engage in the Derridean games, or we will be somehow missing something.

(To which Derrida would no doubt respond by playing Derridean games using the terms in the preceding sentences. Of course, the fact that Derrida would likely play these games does not address the issues under discussion, such as: must we play these games? Why? This is a place where stepping back and describing common, everyday facts with which we all agree could become useful. Even a Derridean should be able to agree about what words were just spoken, and it should be possible to proceed from there, through great effort, to a point where the Derridean will actually address the issues under discussion, rather than taking further detours into playful Derridean rhapsody.)

Finally, I note that a therapeutic Wittgensteinian approach to the history of philosophy could raise interesting questions about thinkers in other traditions as well. It would be interesting, for example, to attempt to trace the origins of philosophical puzzles in Plato’s writings, and even in the pre-Socratics, back to features of ancient Greek language and history, to try to reconstruct why philosophers became captivated by the specific problems that captivated them. Similar investigations could be carried out in non-Western philosophy. If philosophical puzzles arise in the way that Wittgenstein describes, as a result of misunderstandings about our language, then was it relevant to the course of ancient Chinese thought that children who speak Chinese learn verbs first, while children who learn Western languages learn nouns first? Even if this is not true, it seems that the many differences between languages (like the absence of a copula in some languages) might have interesting effects on the kinds of philosophical problems that arise within those languages, if philosophical problems are in fact a primarily linguistic phenomenon.



2 thoughts on “Philosophy after Wittgenstein: Wittgensteinian philosophical history

  1. Pingback: Thomas Sheehan on Heidegger | Against the Logicians

  2. Pingback: Philosophy “in the doldrums” | Against the Logicians

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