The enduring brilliance of Ludwig Wittgenstein

As with all geniuses, it is taking the rest of us many years to catch him up

May 07, 2018
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Rankings of the greatest this or the most important that almost always generate dozens of column inches. We shouldn’t be surprised that one exception to this rule is a recently rediscovered list of the most important works of philosophy published between 1950–2000, selected by 16 eminent philosophers for a Chinese publisher. Few outside of academe have even heard of Michael Dummett’s The Logical Basis of Metaphysics, Richard Hare’s The Language of Morals or David Armstrong’s A Combinatorial Theory of Possibility.

The figure whose posthumous masterpiece tops the list, however, has had an enduring appeal and influence that extends far beyond the academy. You may not have read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations but you will certainly have heard many quotes from it, such as “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language,” “the meaning of a word is its use in the language,” “The human body is the best picture of the human soul,” and “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”

Philosophical Investigations deserves first place in the list for its author’s impact on the wider intellectual culture alone. But in one respect it is a very odd choice indeed. For Wittgenstein stood squarely against the mainstream of Anglophone philosophy. For him, philosophy was almost like a disease that needed a cure. As he said in the Investigations, his aim was “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” Philosophers were stuck trying to solve problems of their own making, trapped inside a conceptual “bottle” that they mistook for the outside world.

Wittgenstein’s challenge was impossible to ignore because it came from within the field itself. In his younger days at Cambridge, his exceptional talent was acknowledged by Bertrand Russell. The pupil soon exceeded the master, as Wittgenstein demolished Russell’s theory of judgement. “It is the younger generation knocking at the door,” wrote Russell in a letter to his lover Ottoline Morrell. “I must make room for him when I can, or I shall become an incubus.”

Wittgenstein’s iconoclasm, his strong personality and his gnomic, aphoristic writing style earned him a cult following. Acolytes at Cambridge would even mimic his mannerisms and ways of speaking. This didn’t help his reputation in the philosophical world beyond the Fens. When I was a postgraduate student, the standard view seemed to be that Wittgenstein was a philosopher you would fall in love with when young but grow out of in time.

“Acolytes at Cambridge would even mimic Wittgenstein’s mannerisms and ways of speaking”
But as the years pass, his stock only continues to rise. Card-carrying Wittgensteinians might be relatively thin on the ground but he pointed a direction for philosophy to head in that many are now following.

One example of this is the problem of consciousness. For decades this has been seen as the toughest philosophical nut to crack. How can matter give rise to thought, sensation, emotion? How can we be conscious when we are made of the same stuff as stones? More and more people have come to accept that if we frame the problem in these terms, it can never be solved. The alternative is not to solve it but to dissolve it, by seeing the problem as an artefact of a misguided dualistic worldview in which matter and mind are defined such that they can never be aspects of the same thing. I’ve seen something close to this view expressed by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the psychologist Michael Gazzaniga and the clinical neuropsychologist Paul Broks, to name but three. None attribute their views to Wittgenstein but his fingerprints are all over them.

Wittgenstein‘s most famous and abused idea is that of the “language game.” Reacting against both dominant philosophies of language and his own earlier work, Wittgenstein came to reject the idea that words are kinds of labels for things in the world or ideas in our head, and that the meaning of sentences are therefore entirely determinable. The meaning of a word is rather “its use in the language” which is governed by rules that are neither explicit nor clear. The same word can be used to refer to two things because they have a “family resemblance,” but it might not be possible to precisely define what that resemblance is. This view of how language works anticipated the more empirical prototype theory developed in the 1970s by Eleanor Rosch. Rosch argued that we learn the meanings of words by noticing how they are used, first learning their most typical usages and later their extended or metaphorical ones. Learning meanings by definitions is atypical. The family resemblance to family resemblance theory is too strong to miss. Once again, Wittgenstein cleared the path that others only later followed.

Wittgenstein has also become extremely popular in theology. His ideas provide the perfect response to those who would dismiss religion as bad proto-science, a set of beliefs about the things that exist in the universe. Many theologians respond to this with Wittgenstein’s line “For a mistake, that’s too big.” Religion is rather a “form of life” to use another Wittgensteinian concept, in which the rules of the language game are different from the scientific or the historical. Statements like “God is love” or “we need saving from sin” are not like “tomato is a fruit” or “the drowning woman needs saving from the flood.” They are attempts to capture spiritual and existential realities, not describe the empirical world.

I surprise myself with how often I reach for a Wittgenstein line to capture the essence of something philosophical. Writing my book on the nature of reason, for example, I quoted his On Certainty more times than I would have anticipated. As with all geniuses, it is taking the rest of us many years to catch him up. Nearly 70 years after his death, we can be increasingly confident that if any philosophers of the 20th century will be read in the 22nd, Wittgenstein will be among them.