An End to Anxiety

Barry Stroud

  • Wittgenstein by A.J. Ayer
    Weidenfeld, 155 pp, £14.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 297 78612 1
  • The Legacy of Wittgenstein by Anthony Kenny
    Blackwell, 150 pp, £12.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 631 13705 X
  • Wittgenstein on Meaning by Colin McGinn
    Blackwell, 202 pp, £12.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 631 13764 5
  • Understanding Wittgenstein: Studies of ‘Philosophical Investigations’ by J.M.F. Hunter
    Edinburgh, 248 pp, £20.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 85224 497 5

Wittgenstein predicted that his work would not be properly understood and appreciated. He said it was written in a different spirit from that of the main stream of European and American civilisation, which he found alien and uncongenial. He expressed indifference to what he saw as his fate in such a culture. How has it turned out so far? How much of what goes on in philosophy today is the result of a serious response to Wittgenstein? The question is more difficult than it looks, and not just because of its size. He is a major philosopher of this century, but on the whole the significance of his work as he conceived of it has not really been acknowledged and absorbed by the philosophy of our day. His influence, however great, has been indirect. It has usually led others in directions precisely opposite to the spirit of his own teaching.

He had a direct and devastating effect as a young man on Russell at the height of his powers around 1912. But Russell’s generous introduction to the English edition of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) so incensed Wittgenstein by its lack of comprehension that he could scarcely be persuaded to allow it to appear. That book had its greatest impact on Vienna, the most creative centre of philosophy in the Twenties and early Thirties: but what they got from it is what made logical positivism possible. From his return to philosophy in 1929 until his death in 1951 he published virtually nothing. The effects of his intense work during that whole period were filtered through the reports of a few pupils, the unauthorised circulation of some notes and lectures, and whatever tidbits could be picked up about what was going on in Cambridge.

With the appearance of Philosophical Investigations in 1953 the philosophical world could begin to see for itself. For the most part, it saw what it was already prepared to see. By then Oxford was the centre of British philosophy and was dominated by the philosophy of mind. Accordingly, Wittgenstein’s doctrines on the philosophical issues of the day were extracted from his strangely unsystematic text, a novel ‘Wittgensteinian’ solution to the epistemological problem of other minds was identified and elaborated, and famous theses about the relation between the ‘inner’ or ‘private’ and the ‘outer’ or ‘public’ were much discussed. The subsequent publication of a dozen more volumes of his writings has scarcely altered the way he is read: they simply reveal what are thought to be his views on a wider variety of topics.

Most responses to Wittgenstein have not acknowledged that his philosophy represents as radical a break with the past as he thought it did. They have simply placed what they take to be his doctrines alongside other philosophical theories of the tradition. In particular, they have overlooked or dismissed his concern with the very possibility of a philosophical doctrine or theory. Both the Tractatus and the later writings aspire in different ways to an idea of philosophy that does not consist of a set of doctrines or truths at all. Conditions for the intelligibility and philosophical efficacy of such pronouncements cannot be fulfilled. Forms of words that might seem to express illuminating philosophical discoveries are shown either to state only familiar mundane truths (or falsehoods) that explain nothing, or to say nothing at all. This point about philosophy is not itself to be proved once and for all by abstract argument: it is to be exhibited and made concrete in the very attempt to gain the kind of understanding traditionally sought in philosophy. That does not mean that there is no such thing as philosophy. It means only that whatever philosophy might be, it cannot be the discovery and propounding of philosophical doctrines or theories. That central idea of Wittgenstein’s has not really had a run for its money in this century, either in the interpretation of his work or in philosophy at large.

One big obstacle has apparently been the difficulty of seeing what philosophy could be, or what the point of it would be, if that were so. The Tractatus was not much help in that regard. It consists of one oracular pronouncement after another about language, and the world, and even the self and ethics and God, followed by the observation that to have understood all those remarks correctly is to see that they can say nothing at all. We are to throw them away after we have used them to grasp everything important – namely, what cannot be said. The development of semantics, a rigorous and far-from-impossible study that talks about the relation between linguistic expressions and the world, was widely believed to have undermined that particular defence of the impossibility of philosophical truth.

At one time some of the positivists announced that philosophy could be only an activity, not a set of doctrines. But then the philosophical activity most of them ended up engaging in was the ‘analysis’ of the ‘form’ of our thought, or of something called ‘the logic of science’. The results were to be expressed in a set of necessary ‘analytic’ truths or definitions, true by virtue of their meaning. British philosophy in the Fifties came closer in some respects to the anti-theoretical tendency of Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy, but again the positive aspect of the activity seemed thin and unappealing. It was seen as a matter of the ‘therapeutic’ dissolution of traditional philosophical problems. Not surprisingly, it soon moved in a more positive theoretical direction and sought to understand and explain in general terms where things had gone wrong. New truth was to supplant the philosophical mistakes of the past. It seemed inevitable: if philosophy is not the search for philosophical truths or theories of some kind or other, what could it possibly be?

Wittgenstein’s later work embodies an answer to that question. It is easier to see it at work than to explain it in general terms. Philosophy is to be purely ‘descriptive’, not explanatory. But the description is always offered with a certain point, or purpose, not simply for its own sake. It isn’t that there is a hidden or sublime domain that is the subject-matter of philosophy: ‘philosophy isn’t anything except philosophical problems, the particular individual worries that we call “philosophical problems”.’ In trying to understand we find ourselves thinking and saying certain things; these are ‘the original data of philosophy, written and spoken sentences’. The descriptive task is to see what those sentences really say, how they are actually used. But that description gets its power of illumination – its very purpose – from the presence of the philosophical problems. We are to look into the actual workings of our language in the face of the natural, perhaps inevitable, urge to misunderstand them. The urge is what gives the description its importance. ‘The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.’ The philosophical rearrangement of what we have always known is not a matter of explaining anything or deducing new, previously hidden conclusions. ‘If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to question them, because everyone would agree to them.’

Wittgenstein uses these and other by now equally famous slogans to draw attention to the special character of the philosophical activity he says he is engaged in. It doesn’t follow that he really does remain as uncommitted to abstract theory as he claims. Nor do those remarks alone show that his is the best or even a profitable way to proceed in philosophy. Careful examination of what he actually does, and extended application of those procedures, would be needed for that. But what is most remarkable about the reception of Wittgenstein is not that his procedures as he describes them have not been more widely adopted in academic philosophy, but that on the whole he has not even been interpreted as if he were trying to follow them himself. Some have even found his descriptions of his own procedures disingenuous.

That is the reaction of A.J. Ayer in his new book, Wittgenstein. He thinks there is no doubt about it. He roundly declares that Wittgenstein’s ‘repeated preference for description over explanation and the avoidance of theory which he claimed to practise and enjoined upon his readers are not characteristic of his actual procedure at any stage of his development, including that of the Investigations.’ It is not just that Wittgenstein failed to practise what he preached; he knew what he was doing. It was a ‘recurrent tactic’ of his ‘to pretend’ that he limits himself to description without theorising. Ayer does not come right out and say why he thinks Wittgenstein would go in for that sort of pretence. But he thinks it is ‘obvious that his work is permeated with theory’, even if it is not always easy to tell exactly what the theories are. ‘What makes his own theories difficult to pin down is that they are repeatedly insinuated by felicitous examples, very seldom expounded or defended by a train of continuous argument.’

In fact, Ayer does not seem to have much difficulty pinning down the theories and doctrines he thinks are there. He does not spend time delicately probing elusive texts or teasing insinuated doctrines into the light of day. The book moves briskly from one point or thesis to another, often without much connection between them, and in each case we are told in no uncertain terms whether Wittgenstein got it right. His score is not impressive. No explanation is given of how he could be a great philosopher while getting so many things wrong. On the first page Ayer says he would not be writing the book if he did not think Wittgenstein an important philosopher, and on the last page he expresses appreciation of Wittgenstein’s brilliance and originality. But on the 143 pages in between not much is said that supports that estimation. In the end he places Wittgenstein ‘second only to Bertrand Russell among the philosophers of the 20th century’. Coming as it does at the end of this book, that verdict reads like a lukewarm judgment of 20th-century philosophy.

Anthony Kenny’s The Legacy of Wittgenstein is a collection of ten papers he has published separately over the last twenty years. Some are interpretations of difficult parts of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, mostly from the early and middle periods, and some are applications to particular issues of lessons to be learned from him. The aim is to stress the continuity of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and of his conception of the nature of philosophy, and to illustrate the importance of his ideas for the study of language and the mind.

Kenny is struck by Wittgenstein’s declining influence in recent years and attributes it to the apparently more ‘scientific’ aspirations of contemporary philosophers, especially in America. That conception of philosophy is just what Wittgenstein set himself against. He thought ‘philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness.’ In another remark quoted here by Kenny he adds: ‘The fatal thing about the scientific way of thinking, which the whole world employs nowadays, is that it wants to produce an explanation in answer to each anxiety.’

Philosophy as Wittgenstein understands it would avoid philosophical explanation and metaphysical darkness. In the most interesting essay in this book Kenny deals sympathetically with that conception of philosophy, drawing on some still-unpublished writings from the Thirties as well as more familiar material. He finds an initial tension between the ‘therapeutic’ side of Wittgenstein’s technique – the ‘curing’ of philosophical anxieties – and its promise to provide complete clarity, a perspicuous overview of what was puzzling. It is easy to think that therapy is valuable only to the extent to which there is a disease to cure. The best policy would seem to be to avoid philosophy in the first place. But the simple distinction between prevention and cure does not hold in this case. Wittgenstein’s procedures are meant to work not only against philosophers but against the philosopher in each of us. Our language embodies an ‘entire mythology’ to which we are almost inevitably attracted when we try to understand ourselves in certain ways.

In other essays in the book Kenny tries to identify and expose some of those myths or confusions, especially those about the mind. That is just what we need more of. But it faces the challenge no one has really learned to meet. The best way to understand and appreciate Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy is to concentrate on what it does and how it works, not on what he says about it. But in expounding and explaining that achievement it seems impossible to avoid ascribing to him theses or doctrines. Or are they only truisms?

Saul Kripke has ascribed to Wittgenstein provocative doctrines about meaning which it now begins to appear almost nobody agrees with – either as views of Wittgenstein’s or as truths about meaning. Colin McGinn attacks Kripke on both counts. His Wittgenstein on Meaning is a response to Kripke’s brilliant Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1982). McGinn confesses he always found Wittgenstein’s own writings baffling until Kripke came along. Half the book is meant to be an exposition and criticism of Wittgenstein’s views, and the other half outlines Kripke’s interpretation and measures its accuracy against that earlier exposition before going on to argue against what Kripke says quite independently of whether Wittgenstein also believed it.

McGinn starts with two cautionary points, but then quickly gives reason for ignoring them. He thinks Wittgenstein’s aims are primarily negative and that we should not expect from him a positive theory of meaning of the sort usually proposed by less ‘therapeutic’ philosophers. And he warns against reading Philosophical Investigations as a cipher through which we are to penetrate to a single, linearly-ordered argument lying beneath it. He proposes to meet the challenge of expounding Wittgenstein by treating the discussion as organised around certain ‘themes’. But by the third page of the book those themes have turned into ‘theses’ – four of them, in fact – and Wittgenstein’s arguments in favour of each of them are sketched and evaluated. It turns out that the first thesis must be subdivided into two, and out of the resulting five, Wittgenstein got four of them more or less right. That is certainly a higher percentage than in Ayer’s book, but it is within a much narrower range.

The part of this book likely to attract most interest is the criticism of Kripke. His ‘sceptical paradox’ was that when I say something on a particular occasion there is nothing about me then that distinguishes my meaning one thing from my meaning something completely different – ‘there is no fact’ as to whether I mean one thing rather than another, or even nothing at all. McGinn finds Kripke’s arguments inconclusive, and quite properly looks askance at the notion of ‘fact’ they make use of. He is equally critical of the alleged ‘solution’ to the paradox, although there will be no need for a solution if the paradox is illusory. For McGinn what is really at stake is ‘what it is’ to mean something, or what meaning something by a word ‘consists in’. That makes his clear, sensible treatment here relevant to current debates in the philosophy of language. Its relation to Wittgenstein is perhaps more doubtful in the light of an admittedly enigmatic sentence he himself quotes from Wittgenstein: ‘The mistake is to say that there is anything that meaning something consists in.’ That is the kind of remark a fully satisfying interpretation of Wittgenstein would have to explain.

J.M.F. Hunter has been working away for some years now in the presence of Wittgenstein’s writings. His Understanding Wittgenstein is the second volume of results. He is aware of the difficulties of exposition and explanation, and he tries to avoid attributing theses to his master. He is concerned with interpretation, though, because he thinks Wittgenstein wanted his readers to fend for themselves and so took care to avoid explaining what he wished to say. In trying to explain it Hunter takes different sections of Philosophical Investigations as starting-points and tries to work out in his own way what can be shown to be wrong with a particular philosophical question. He wants to get down to the fine detail and be able to show, rather than just to say, what can be made of Wittgenstein’s work.

These aims are very sympathetic to Wittgenstein’s purposes. Hunter sees that the real value of his essays will ultimately depend on the insights we gain from them. That is something everyone will have to try for himself. My own feeling is that Hunter’s effort to take on the questions just as they come, as much as possible without philosophical preconceptions in mind, tends to flatten them out, to take the zip out of the subject. Wittgenstein’s descriptions of our actual practices get their whole purpose from the fact that they are offered only in the face of our philosophical urge to misunderstand them. Hunter proceeds from below, as it were, giving what we all can recognise to be straightforward, mundane answers to questions he finds in Wittgenstein, as if eventually to leave no room for anything higher or more philosophical to arise. But for Wittgenstein we must continue to ask the philosophical question, and return to it again and again when it threatens to disappear, if we are to gain the kind of insight promised by his idea of philosophy.

These books all illustrate in different ways the sheer difficulty of responding to Wittgenstein. The tendency to find in him what we think we can make use of reveals more about our hopes for philosophy than about his.