How Wittgenstein Ruined Philosophy


In their book, Wittgenstein’s Poker, David Edmonds and John Eidinow use two philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein (pictured) and Karl Popper, to tell “the story of the schism in twentieth-century philosophy over the significance of language: a division between those who diagnosed traditional philosophical problems as purely linguistic entanglements and those who believed that these problems transcended language.”

Wittgenstein believed that philosophical problems stemmed from confusions and obfuscations embedded in language, itself.  Popper felt strongly that, regardless of the troubles of language, philosophical problems went much deeper than mere words, and that philosophy was a tool to be used in the real world for real purposes.

Edmonds and Eidinow indirectly define what I call the “Cartesian Era” in philosophy, lasting from the time of Descartes (17th century) until the 20th century.  During the Cartesian Era, the authors state that “the central branch of philosophy had been Epistemology—the study of what we can know.”  Descartes famously began his philosophy by doubting everything in the universe beyond the existence of his own consciousness, “Cogito ergo sum,” he said:  “I think, therefore I am.”  From this foundation, he then went on to build his personal Tower Of Babel, the grand edifice housing What Can Be Known.

But then a new era dawned, what I’ll call the Era Of The Language Puzzle.  If Wittgenstein is the Christ of the Era Of The Language Puzzle, then Bertrand Russell is its John The Baptist— the talented messenger preparing the ground for the coming of the master.  “After Russell,” say Edmonds and Eidinow, “epistemology was displaced by the philosophy of language.”

To my way of thinking, all Russell did was point out that people can use language to tell lies.  Stunner, that one.

Russell said that a person can speak of the King of France as being bald– even though there is no King of France.  This blew his mind.  And he marveled at language’s ability to construct fairy tale fictions such as a “golden mountain.”

Russell also seemed to find it perplexing that there is a special kind of descriptor that I will call a “name.”  A “name” is not like other descriptors:  a name connotes the entirety of the thing named.  Whereas, other descriptors only paint part of the picture.  The example Russell uses is the descriptor, “the author of Waverly;” this phrase does not describe Walter Scott in totality but merely one aspect of him, whereas when we use the name, “Walter Scott” we do, indeed, mean the whole person… or do we?

Granted, the imprecision of language is mysterious, frustrating, and confusing, but since when did pointing that out become a profound philosophical insight?

Enter Wittgenstein.

From my perspective, Wittgenstein ruined philosophy.  He was more of a linguist than a philosopher—at least by what was meant by “philosopher” before the 20th century.  I was just now tempted to say that Wittgenstein thought the we must first solve the puzzles of language before we could apply language to solving philosophical problems, but on second thought, I’ve found little evidence that Wittgenstein was navigating the twists and turns of language on the way to somewhere else.  As far as I can gather, the mysteries of language were all that he was passionately drawn to consider.

Karl Popper, on the other hand, said that Wittgenstein and all those fixated on language puzzles were like people cleaning and cleaning their spectacles—but never actually looking through them.

“Serious philosophers realize that the only point of the cleaning is to enable the wearer to see the world more clearly,” said Popper, adding elsewhere that, “Wittgenstein and school never venture beyond preliminaries.”

For Popper, obsessing over the puzzles of language is trivial.  The world is full of real and serious problems to be solved.  And those real world problems are where philosophers should be focusing their thoughts and energies, not on dictionaries and grammar books.

Of course, to take Wittgenstein’s side for a moment (and don’t expect to see me do this again), there is, indeed, some truth to Edmonds and Eidinow’s statement that “if cogito ergo sum is to have any meaning, there has to be prior acceptance of what is to count as Thinking, and how the concept of Thought is to be used.”  But E&E overstate their case.  Language does not first have to be perfected before it can be used.  Witness, uhm, history.  We have somehow managed, despite the flaws of language, to express ourselves fairly well and to speak of our world with some successful degree of meaningfulness.

A tool does not have to be in perfect working order to get the job done.  Perhaps it will perform messily and with mistakes galore, but yet, we can somehow manage to get’r done.  Thor’s Hammer may be missing part of its handle, but it can still knock a powerful blow.

Wittgenstein, working the same poor vein as Russell, speaks of how words can be misleading.  But what wife or husband hasn’t figured that one out?

Wittgenstein contends that many words have “a multiplicity of uses,” and that those various uses may not have much of anything in common.  He describes terms that have superficial similarities but distinct meanings as merely sharing a “family resemblance.”

Right.  Wake me when the Era Of The Language Puzzle is over.


More from Hammering Shield on Wittgenstein:

Wittgenstein:  Philosophy’s “Avalanche”


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