So what the heck is the book about?

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2021

As we start, we'll let Wittgenstein give you a list: Philosophical Investigations was published in 1953, two years after Wittgenstein's death from cancer at age 62.

Its preface was written in 1945, but Wittgenstein decided to withhold publication until after his death. At the start of the preface, he listed some of the topics he said he would investigate in the book. As you yourself can see, the preface starts like this:

PREFACE 

The thoughts which I publish in what follows are the precipitate of philosophical investigations which have occupied me for the last sixteen years. They concern many subjects: the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition, of logic, the foundations of mathematics, states of consciousness, and other things. I have written down all these thoughts as remarks, short paragraphs, of which there is sometimes a fairly long chain about the same subject, while I sometimes make a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another.—It was my intention at first to bring all this together in a book whose form I pictured differently at different times. But the essential thing was that the thoughts should proceed from one subject to another in a natural order and without breaks.

"I sometimes make a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another," he said. This is part of the difficulty a reader will encounter in trying to read this book.

The title of the book is wholly generic. Basically, it tells us that we aren't reading a biology text, or a book on auto mechanics.

There are no chapters within the book, and therefore no chapter titles. Instead, the book is simply a series of numbered passages. Some of these numbered passages are one paragraph long. Others are longer.

Even for a specialist, it's isn't necessarily all that easy to say what the book "is about."  In the paragraph we've posted, Wittgenstein lists some of the "many subjects" touched upon in the somewhat disjointed text.

The thoughts which he has published "concern many subjects," he says. Those subjects include "the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition, of logic, the foundations of mathematics, states of consciousness, and other things." 

So the gentleman says, but will that list, such as it is, help the non-specialist much? Are we sure that we understand what it means to publish thoughts on "the concept of meaning," or on "the concept of understanding?" 

Do we know what it means to publish thoughts on "the concept of a proposition," if that's an accurate account of the third subject he lists? We may feel we know, in a general way,  what it means to publish thoughts about logic, or about some aspect of logic. But do we know what it means to publish thoughts on "the concept of logic," if that's an accurate account of Wittgenstein's language there?

Readers approaching their first encounter aren't getting much help from that list.  That said, Philosophical Investigations was rated the most important philosophy book of the 20th century in a survey of philosophy professors in late 1999. (Tomorrow, we'll add a note about what Professor Horwich later said.)

We think the book, though highly opaque, can be quite instructive. The entire text can be perused here. We'll try to help readers puzzle it out as our notes on this most important book continue down through the long years.


7 comments:

  1. Somerby grumbles about the organization of the book, but it was published after his death and Wittgenstein had not put it into finished form before he died. That is clear if you compare the intentions in his forward to the book itself, and also from the circumstances of his death.

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