Think This Way

This is a follow-up to the previous post and the last one on the current theme, which is that of the different senses of ‘philosophy’. I guess one point I’m trying to drive at is that ‘philosophy’ itself isn’t just one thing, and so the blanket rejection of ‘philosophy,’ or interpretation of it as ‘nonsense,’ is in some sense just as pointless as defending it.

It seems fair to characterize Wittgenstein’s relationship to philosophy, and to ‘philosophy,’ as somewhere between ambivalent and hostile. He sometimes characterizes his own work as a kind of therapy to undo its pernicious effects:

“The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. – The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself  in question.” (PI §133)

As Hilary Putnam pointed out to me, though, there is something faintly absurd about this passage when measured against Wittgenstein’s life. The peace in question, surely, was one he never found. Again and again, back to the notebooks, considering and reconsidering everything he could, mentoring, disputing, obsessing – in some sense, philosophy was his life, and more or less everyone thinks of him as a philosopher.

I suppose one could try to make sense of this by comparing Wittgenstein to an atheist philosopher of religion, who opposes the errors (as she sees them) of faith as her life’s work because she regards faith as a disease, a moral blight, a limitation of humanity’s potential. But it’s not a very good comparison for at least two reasons.

First, an atheist philosopher of religion doesn’t ‘go native’ in the way that Wittgenstein does, feeling the problems of religious life “from within” and then trying to sort them out from a different point of view – she can’t. The real anti-philosopher busies herself with grilled whitefish and Pigato overlooking the Ligurian Sea, or getting through another day at the quarry. “Who wastes time with that foolishness?”

But I think it’s part of Wittgenstein’s approach that you need to feel the force of the problems in order to unravel them, and in any case he did.

Second, Wittgenstein was an avid reader of philosophy and philosophical conversationalist – we know from his own writings how much stimulus to thought Frege, Russell, Moore, James, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and countless others provided him. The journals don’t suggest that this reading and conversation was in any way a kind of ‘knowing one’s enemy’, either – he may have been trying to dissolve or unravel some of their problems rather than to solve them, but it was an unraveling offered to them as a member of their community.

Having said this, let’s turn to Philosophical Investigations §118:

“Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble.)

“What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.”

When I first read this as a student, I wanted to agree with Wittgenstein, so I did, through a lazy hermeneutic which enables a great deal of superficial agreement between people: I assumed he was talking specifically about the arguments that infuriated me. But to borrow a phrase of Duncan Richter’s, let’s take Wittgenstein at his word here. What would it be like to look at philosophy and its history as nothing but houses of cards?

Here is an answer which seems plausibly Wittgensteinian: language as it is actually used is this incredibly complex and interrelated set of phenomena which is concretely tied into our lives in all sorts of importantly different ways. Given this, even ‘interesting’ philosophy is ultimately nothing more than a kind of savage poetry, hacking through these subtleties and distinctions (and, with them, our form of life) and then stitching the pieces together into an artificial pattern, one which given the realities of actual use engages with little or nothing in life and action and leads mostly to nonsense in speech. So that in the end, the history of philosophy mostly consists of a lot of ill-founded outbuildings that don’t really solve the underlying problems which motivated their construction and don’t really add anything to the way we live our lives.

I want to say: a judgment such as this one only becomes plausible on the basis of a certain kind of interpretation of what people are doing; an interpretation which does the same kind of violence – call it philosophical violence – to the subject of which it treats as it accuses that subject of doing to our shared language and forms of life.

Must philosophy be sub specie aeternatis? Other approaches have been suggested: Dewey’s view, wherein one generation’s solutions play their role in the time they are offered but lead to new problems for the next, or Collingwood’s framing of The Principles of Art as a philosophy of English art in 1937. On these approaches there is arguably a kind of rehabilitation of the history of philosophy: the outbuildings seemed useful at the time of their construction – and they still inspire some people – and philosophers can use them to see what kinds of approaches people have taken to the problems of philosophy in the past, and thus to gain clues for approaches we might take now when our current solutions fail.

Sometimes in casual conversation people ask each other what they do for a living. The response “I’m a philosopher” or “I teach philosophy” induces some of them to say things like  “Oh! My philosophy is…”

1. “Live and let live” or “Do what makes you happy as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.”

2. “Get what you can, while you can” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – only do it first!”

3. “Trust in Jesus and everything will be OK.”

Every professional philosopher I’ve talked to about these conversations cringes at their recollection. Yet there’s a sense in which these platitudes have more claim to the title “philosophy” then some of the things we do in university philosophy departments. (Having written that there is no longer any bar of outrageousness I have to hurdle on this blog.) They express views of life – ways of approaching the problems of life and thought that have a kind of rough behavioral and cognitive coherence, even if (with occasional exceptions) none of them tend to be satisfying to the kind of people who become philosophical professionals, at least not without significant additional padding.

I think that when students come to philosophy classes they are often looking for new and different views of life, or else for a more searching and detailed examination of the views of life to which they have already been exposed. And although it is not the case that the purpose of philosophy is to construct views of life, nonetheless the history of our subject shows clearly that philosophical antinomies provide a wonderful background against which to articulate such views. Sketching out where you stand in relation to philosophical problems is an excellent way to show what your view of things is – and the history of the subject is full of philosophers with fascinating and fascinatingly different views of life.

I am deeply grateful for having been exposed to Plato’s and Spinoza’s and Nietzsche’s views of life, for instance – even though I ultimately rejected them – my life and thought were richer for having looked at the problems of philosophy through their eyes. Likewise, Schopenhauer’s interest to his contemporaries surely did not derive from his plodding prose, and only occasionally from his ‘results’: the primary driver was his world-view.

I have some inclination to say that this is even true of philosophers like Quine and Rawls.

One thing a philosopher does, when he offers solutions to philosophical problems, in addition to persuading us that his view is correct or plausible, is to say: “Think this way.” To present a solution to a philosophical problem as true or even interesting is to present a style of thought as a way to find truth and interest.

To think is also to present a model of thinking.

It would be tempting to regard Wittgenstein’s anti-philosophical stance as pertaining to philosophy-as-theory and certain aspects of his life and notebooks and philosophical engagement as indicating breathing-room for philosophy-as-other-stuff. But while momentarily alluring, this move looks doubtful, because the other stuff is interwoven with theory at every level: the view of life shows itself in the approaches taken to resolving the problems, and in their interconnections.

I guess there is always a question about what we’re doing. But even that question can dissolve. Different things in different circumstances.

This answer could show a lack of moral seriousness, but it’s not clear to me that it has to. Whether it does partly depends on your views about the centrality of thought in human life, for instance; also on the relative values of getting the right answers and helping people see how their own ideas fit together.

I can imagine other kinds of motivation for the “house of cards” perspective applied to philosophy writ large. Having unraveled the illusions that blind and trap us, we will be returned to where we already are with a clear mind, mountains once again mountains and rivers once again rivers. Or we could look to I Corinthians 3:11 – “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” – the idea being not that some putatively ‘Christian’ system of thought is the right one to endorse, but rather that no system of thought whatsoever can save you, and that presenting people with ways of looking at things is just presenting them with false idols; so that sweeping away houses of cards might encourage people out of the forest of abstractions and back to a place where they might be helped.

There’s a hint of something like this in Wittgenstein, the idea that philosophy builds out from what our lives really are in a way which obscures them, and that we need to unravel it and free ourselves from it in order to see ourselves truly. And there’s a point to that – but there’s also a point to articulating a problem or even a philosophical system in a way which really clearly expresses one way of dealing with it, and letting people discover their own thoughts and feelings in that.

I just have trouble judging the aptness of philosophical thought outside of particular applications.

But in the end that’s sort of a useless thing to say, I think. So I suppose all of this is just a mild protest against ‘anti-philosophy’, along the same lines in which I sometimes join in certain protests against ‘philosophy’.

I hope someone else gets something out of it. I hope to be moving back to items of more direct philosophical, or anti-philosophical, interest presently.


3 comments on “Think This Way

  1. Lynette says:

    This is a nice discussion. I’ll take a convinced metaphysician any day over a Wittgensteinian philistine, and there are plenty of those. The Wittgensteinian philistine in my mind is the one who thinks that Wittgenstein successfully destroys western metaphysics, and then gives a fairly superficial and pat account of how that is. (“Meaning is use.”)

    They usually go on to hate theory in any other discipline as well, lacking in general a broad view of how different kinds of thought (and kinds of self-awareness or not about thought) are part of the rich intellectual life of a culture.

    I like your “…I think it’s part of Wittgenstein’s approach that you need to feel the force of the problems in order to unravel them, and in any case he did.”

  2. seancstidd says:

    Thanks Lynette.

    I am not so concerned with philistinism (although I do find it unfortunate) as with how we make sense of the idea that something called ‘philosophy’ might/must be something called “nonsense.” I see people I respect, not just philistines, saying things about philosophy and nonsense that seem too blunt to be right.

    Isn’t “no lines in the sand” just another line in the sand? If it were easy Plato would have taken care of all this a long time ago I think.

    I feel like saying something else too though, which would run sort of like this –

    If you defer to the everyday, people who think about thinking (or truth, goodness, and/or beauty) as their major preoccupation, paid or not, as well as anyone employed by a University department called ‘philosophy’ as a teacher or researcher or both, are philosophers, with all the baggage that word brings along with it. Which doesn’t mean you have to be a declamatory oddball like Diogenes or Spinoza, but you have a relation to the history of this word whether you like it or not. You’re answerable to the guy next to you on the plane in the marketing department who got a BA – he calls you a philosopher, so you are one. The rest is just distinguishing schools and approaches.

    I know a guy, a totally non-Wittgensteinian analytic political philosopher, who tells non-philosophers that he’s not a philosopher, even though he’s employed doing political philosophy by a philosophy department. He is showing a kind of intellectual honesty when he says this – he does not consider the work he does to have much relation to the questions of “the good life” or “ultimate truth” that ordinary people associate with the name “philosophy” – so he sees himself, I think, as being responsible to ordinary usage, and telling people that although he has a PhD in philosophy and works in a philosophy department he’s not a philosopher.

    I don’t think this is a position we can or should hold for long – ethics aside, if you think that the Department of Philosophy has trouble finding funding, wait until you see how the Department of Otiose Conceptual Distinctions does – but it’s at least acknowledging what to me ought to be a fairly straightforward point for people who defer to ‘ordinary use’.

    If I had time I would now re-read the sections of the Investigations around 100 dealing with ‘philosophy’ and ‘what we do’ and all that with these kinds of thought in mind. But I’m gearing up to think about religion instead.

    There’s a point to being suspicious of generalizations and bad arguments, and philosophy is full of both.

    All this having been said, it’s not wrong to say that there’s something deeply opposed to a wide variety of philosophical problem-posing and theorizing in Wittgenstein, and some arguments and perspectives that support that opposition in interesting ways. And it might even be appropriate in some contexts to deploy the word ‘philosophy’ in the way that W sometimes does to indicate that a mistake in thinking one has encountered – if it is that – is a mistake of a certain kind.

    But it seems to me that one shouldn’t think that one has articulated a coherent metaphilosophical viewpoint just because one has realized that some smart people have made some systematic mistakes. And even saying that they were mistakes depends on a particular characterization of the interests and reflective process that led to the argument, actually.

    I am tempted to say that Wittgenstein developed two different prima facie plausible metaphilosophical viewpoints, but they are in no way exhausted or even articulated by the explicitly metaphilosophical statements one encounters in his books. You need the rest of the picture to appreciate the force of the metaphilosophical remarks, actually.

    And the picture itself is actually the more proper referent of the word ‘philosophy’, historically speaking, then the doctrines which express it. Which, if correct, means that even the most successful anti-philosopher just turns out to be a philosopher after all.


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