TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2021
But what were his books about?: According to an array of experts, the later Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations was the most important philosophy book of the 20th century.
For better or worse, it's hard to tell what Wittgenstein was talking about in the puzzling book (link below). For this and at least one other reason, this most important philosophy book of the century plays exactly zero role in our primitive public discourse.
According to those same experts, Wittgenstein's earlier book, the nimbly-named Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), was the fourth most important philosophy book of the 20th century. For non-specialists, it's impossible to know what he was talking about in that earlier book.
(A bit of chronology: Wittgenstein died of cancer in 1951, at age 62. Philosophical Investigations was published two years later.)
Last week, we spent some time discussing the Theaetetus. Right on through the 20th century, academic philosophers still belonged to warring schools of thought concerning Plato's unreadable text.
Fairly early in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein quotes the Theaetetus. The passage in question helps explain why Wittgenstein's books are so hard to understand.
For the record, Philosophical Investigations isn't divided into chapters. For whatever reason, it's divided into numbered passages. These passages are routinely referred to as "paragraphs," even though the passages routinely contain several standard paragraphs.
At any rate, in this, the 46th numbered passage, Wittgenstein quotes the Theaetetus. As he does, he includes a reference to his own first book:
46. What lies behind the idea that names really signify simples?—
Socrates says in the Theaetetus: "If I make no mistake, I have heard some people say this: there is no definition of the primary elements—so to speak—out of which we and everything else are composed; for everything that exists in its own right can only be named, no other determination is possible, neither that it is nor that it is not...But what exists in its own right has to be...named without any other determination. In consequence it is impossible to give an account of any primary element; for it, nothing is possible but the bare name; its name is all it has. But just as what consists of these primary elements is itself complex, so the names of the elements become descriptive language by being compounded together. For the essence of speech is the composition of names."
Both Russell's "individuals" and my "objects" (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) were such primary elements.
Deletions by Wittgenstein. "Russell" is Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein's early mentor.
That passage helps explain something about this most important book:
A great deal of the most important book is a rolling critique of the fourth most important book. This is never stated in a straightforward way, a fact which adds to the maddening obscurity of the most important text.
In effect, Wittgenstein was rejecting the approach to "philosophy" which he had accepted when he wrote the Tractatus as a very young hombre. In effect, he was walking away from an addled tradition which had persisted for several thousand years—the classic "duffer" tradition which led Whitehead to say that all of western academic philosophy was "a series of footnotes to Plato."
As we noted again this morning, Professor Horwich has offered a bone-crushing account of Wittgenstein's work in Philosophical Investigations. According to Horwich, Wittgenstein was now saying that that the prevailing academic tradition had long (unknowingly) concerned itself with "mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking."
It seems to us that Horwich is right. That said, Wittgenstein was such an obscure writer that it's hard to discern what he's talking about through the bulk of the last century's most important philosophy book.
Ironically, some highly useful rules for the road emerge from this bewildering jumble—approaches which help us avoid certain types of conceptual confusion. (In Horwich's terms, certain types of "linguistic illusion and muddled thinking.")
Philosophy professors have thoroughly failed to bring such information forward. We'll guess that, as a general matter, they haven't noticed that these rules for the road exist.
We'll discuss those rules for the road in the weeks and month ahead. For today, you can see the passage where Wittgenstein finally quit the Theaetetus, several thousand years later.
As patriots, we're going to call it the spirit of 46!