Checking In

(1) There are lots of new things, half-written, that I want to post here. Updating this blog has been the next thing on my list of things to do for more than two weeks. I’ve been too busy.

(“How can that be? Either you have not been doing things, or your list of things to do is misnamed.” I would say neither: rather, grading papers, preparing classes, repainting the outdoor railings before winter and the bathroom before my father-in-law visits, taking care of departmental and family responsibilities, etc. has seized every spare moment. “Why are these things not on your list of things to do, then?” I suppose because they are conditions of maintenance for the kind of life I have, rather than free engagement with matters intellectual, spiritual, and cultural. My list has the things that I do when the conditions of my life permit this sort of engagement. “Then why don’t you simplify your life to minimize its conditions of maintenance, leaving more time for these things that you claim to value?” Good question.)

However, having had some time to reflect, I’ve decided that I really like doing this, so I think I’m in it for the long haul. I’m looking forward to continued discussion!

(2) A long time ago, I heard someone opine that teaching the Philosophical Investigations was “the worst way to introduce someone to Wittgenstein’s later philosophy.” Surely this was hyperbole, but having been teaching the book for a month now, I see the point of the remark.

The hard part of teaching the Investigations is that many of your students either won’t have had very much experience with philosophical problems or won’t happen to be currently exercised by the ones that actually show up in the stretch of text you’re reading. Whereas the methods depend in a certain way on actually being puzzled. You can’t be shown the way out of the fly-bottle if you’re not in it.

But explaining philosophical problems in a way which reaches people takes a lot of class time even when you’re successful, when you manage to get your students gripped at least a little bit by something that they may or may not have ever even considered before. So if you’re lucky, you get to that point – which would be the culmination of a very successful twenty to fifty minutes of an introductory class – and then you have to read Wittgenstein with them, and show them how Wittgenstein is trying to untangle the threads that led to you having that feeling of puzzlement, of being caught in the classic philosophical way between a set of jointly inconsistent claims that all seem plausible – to cut off the problem at (what Wittgenstein sees as) the root, rather than offering a more historically conventional denial or disambiguation of the claims.

Pivoting from motivating philosophical problems to difficult exegesis, without losing track of the philosophical problem that is animating the text you’re interpreting, is one of the most difficult bits of classroom gymnastics I’ve ever tried, and I don’t think I am often succeeding, despite the good group of students I am working with.

Having done all that successfully, one really ought to conclude the classroom discussion by assessing whether Wittgenstein’s really succeeded, whether you’re satisfied enough by his reminders and analogies and hypothetical language-games and intermediate cases to think that there really isn’t a problem there after all.

It is often more than I can do to carry such a line of thinking all the way through at all, let alone in the classroom, never mind bringing any students along with me.

It would be vastly better in some respects to start with a group of students, some of whom were genuinely philosophically puzzled about this or that, and just to apply Wittgenstein’s various methods to their puzzles, perhaps contrasting what this approach yields with the kind of resolution you might get from Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, etc. when confronted with similar problems. This hypothetical group of students would have to be convinced that they were being taught about Wittgenstein though, if that was the class they had signed up for. So then you might, having given a preliminary ‘Wittgensteinian’ treatment of your students’ puzzlement directly in the classroom, without referring to Wittgenstein much at all, then go back to the Investigations, notebooks, edited collections, etc. and connect your discussion with things W said and wrote on the same or similar problems, wrapping things up by reflecting both on Wittgenstein and on the ‘therapy’ received.

Hopefully I get to teach this class again someday, and try something more closely resembling that approach.

(3) I have been having some nice exchanges in the comments – thank you! Philip Cartwright of the “Philosophical Investigations” blog ( sent the following note:

“What you say about the Tractatus being just a part of the whole is fair enough, but I’d say the Investigations’ criticism runs a bit deeper than that. The Tractatus mistakes a part for the whole and builds a mythology on top of it. One of the things the Investigations does (or tries to do) is show that that impressive mythology is incoherent.”

Agreed – I meant that remark more as a gateway into the reading of the Investigations for students coming to it for the first time out of the Tractatus.

This does bring us back to the issue of what stays the same, and what changes, between the Tractatus and the Investigations.

The simplest way I have hit on of expressing the difference is this. In both books, linguistic units only have meaning in the context of a significant linguistic performance; and in both books, there’s no ‘going outside language’ to solve the problems that arise within it. In the Tractatus, what it is to be significant is to be truth-functional, to be a ‘logical picture of the facts.’ In the Investigations, on the other hand, ‘meaning is use,’ which is to say that it is the way in which linguistic units are woven into our patterns of action and forms of life which shows their significance.

Perhaps in both approaches philosophy vanishes as nonsense. But what it is for philosophy to do that is completely different in the two cases – since there’s no ‘going outside language.’ The vanishing of philosophy in the Tractatus is more or less literal, as indicated in 6.53. Whereas in the Investigations, assertions of the philosophical type arise in different ways in different places, where people have gotten tangled up in the rules previously laid down, or where forms of speech are invented out of wholecloth and tacked onto the pre-existing whole, without some sort of ‘practical’ (is this the right word?) significance. But now you can’t just deal with the failure truth-functionally; what you have to do is remind people how the words are ordinarily used in the kind of life we have and show how the contradictions and theories we get into are ‘idle wheels’ (if that is what they are – there’s no guarantee that this approach will always work actually) relative to the work these linguistic units actually do in our lives.

So whereas the Tractarian interlocutor needs to be shown that she wants to say something that can’t be said, the interlocutor of the Philosophical Investigations needs to be shown that the linguistic innovations she is proposing don’t serve any purpose, and thus that what she wants to say needn’t be said, as it were. Different kinds of emptiness.

But then the point of this is to actually do it, or try it and see if it works. Even if the last three paragraphs are in some sense right, they don’t engage with any philosophical problems at all. They are at best the Wittgensteinian version of edifying nonsense.

(From a certain point in late childhood until a little after graduating college I sometimes pointed at things and said out loud “cow” or “grass” or “red octagonal sign” – an oddity of character – no-one except me thought I was making significant utterances. Nonetheless, the feeling that this kind of object-identification and description is absolutely basic to everything else is one I had, that a lot of people who go into philosophy and the sciences have, and it’s still not totally clear to me that there’s not something fundamental about life and thought both that isn’t revealed in this admittedly pragmatically truncated way of relating to our environment. I guess the therapy is still ongoing.)  

(4) It is, I suppose, to be held against Wittgenstein that so few philosophers have been persuaded by him after all this time. On the other hand, perhaps this much can be said in his favor: you meet more than a few philosophers who will say, “Well, what Wittgenstein says about (my area of research) is garbage of course, but he’s very insightful about (this other area I’ve thought about some but which isn’t my primary focus).” Neither reaction is decisive for anything fundamental, but both are interesting.

I still owe Lars Hertzberg ( a reply to his comment on my “Sense of a Proposition” post – that’s coming next (update: it’s done, you can follow the exchange here if you’re interested: ), and then on to finishing some of the new posts I mentioned at the beginning. Thanks to all of you who have stopped by to read – especially the small army that stopped by nine days ago when Mindscent (thank you especially!) mentioned the blog on reddit –  I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

More soon. εὖ πράττε.


2 comments on “Checking In

  1. I sympathise with your difficulty over the best way to teach Wittgenstein and (especially) the Investigations. And you must be right when you suggest that it will probably only be worthwhile for students who are already in the grip of philosophical puzzlement. Otherwise, it’s a bit like giving an aspirin to someone who doesn’t have a headache. They’re likely to shrug and wonder what the point was.

    Then, of course, there’s the difficulty provided by the text itself. It is extremely hard to do justice to the therapeutic approach it exemplifies within the confines of a standard university philosophy course. For the Investigations is as much a process as an argument. Typically, that side of things tends to get downplayed; The lecturer “reconstructs” the text into a more conventional series of arguments. They are presented as a fait acompli which the student can respond to in the same way she might to the theories of Descartes, Hume, Russell, etc. This has the undoubted advantage of making things easier for the student but I can’t help feeling that something important is lost along the way.

    Specifically, students are spared the time-consuming chore of working things out for themselves. The finished result is just handed to them, together with the question “what do you think of this?” Everything’s handled at an intellectual level. But Wittgenstein’s therapeutic method is not designed to combat an intellectual difficulty; it is intended to overcome a resistance of the will. It is by assiduously working through the examples and exercises he provides that you come to understand Wittgenstein’s position “from the inside” and take ownership of it yourself. Without that (he believed) your engagement would be too superficial and you’d inevitably be lured back to the traditional arguments and theories.

    I’ve had some experience of this myself. I recently sat down to work through the five exercises in section 182. I figured it would take a few hours. Five days later I had about 40 pages of notes. But I also had a hugely enriched appreciation of Wittgenstein’s position. And, importantly, it was something I’d worked out for myself simply by reminding myself of the astonishing complexity of concepts such as “fitting”, “being able to” and so on.

    How do you accommodate that level of engagement in a standard philosophy course? At best, I think, you can gesture towards it. That probably goes some way to explaining Wittgenstein’s perennial “fringe” status in modern philosophy.

  2. seancstidd says:


    I note that when I was studying with him Peter Winch almost never taught courses on Wittgenstein. Rather Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Social Science, a seminar on Spinoza… What he did instead was host a reading group at his home every Sunday, where we read about 15-20 paragraphs out of some text or other (it seemed to cycle back frequently to the Investigations over the years, but when I started it was Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics I, which was serendipitous in that my background in college was in mathematical physics, so in some ways that was a better point of entry for me), and then discussed them for an hour or two in an open-ended way.

    A wise approach, I think.

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