Thinking Like Wittgenstein

I recently listed Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of three essential philosophers who can add surprising clarity and vital new perspective to frustrating debates about ethics, political ideology and the practical problems of our planet. What’s most essential about Wittgenstein is not the conclusions he has drawn about ethics and politics. It’s the dynamic and truthful way of thinking that his method represents.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is unique among the great Western philosophers. He is the only major thinker to have become famous as a philosopher twice: first for laying out a belief system and then for returning to destroy his earlier work. Indeed, the remarkable fact that he spent the second (and greater) half of his career refuting everything he achieved in the first half is itself an example of the sublime conductivity of his thought process. It takes a hell of an open mind to do that. And a whole lot of courage.

The early Wittgenstein is best represented by a book called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, an ambitious attempt to provide a definitive foundation for logic, meaning and language. He wrote it in partnership with Bertrand Russell, his older mentor at Cambridge University, who had spent decades searching for the definitive foundation of logic, meaning and language.

The Promethean goal of Russell’s project, which became young Wittgenstein’s project as well, was to infuse the experience of being human with a mathematical level of certainty by discovering the deepest roots of language and signification. (To use a modern metaphor that didn’t exist in their time, it’s as if they wanted to find a way to make natural language consistent, verifiable and executable in the way that computer code is.)

Bertrand Russell and several associates spent years on this project before an excited young Austrian named Wittgenstein burst into their offices at Cambridge University to join the team. Russell quickly recognized the newcomer as a savant whose intellectual dexterity and capacity for discovery exceeded his own, and he enthusiastically supported Wittgenstein in writing his first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This is how the book begins:

1 The world is all that is the case.

1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things made up of the world.

1.11 The world is determined by the facts, and by their being all the facts.

1.12 For the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.

If this was the only book Ludwig Wittgenstein ever wrote, I would hate Ludwig Wittgenstein. Not only would he not be on my list of very favorite philosophers; he would probably be on my list of most hated philosophers, because the perfect logical structure he attempted to display in this book was impressive but impossible to inhabit. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus made Ludwig Wittgenstein famous, but it’s what happened next in his career that made Wittgenstein great.

First, actually, a bunch of terrible distractions happened. The young Austrian academic’s cozy double world of Vienna and Cambridge became itself logically impossible when Austria-Hungary suddenly went to war against England in 1914. Wittgenstein left Cambridge to return home and become an officer in the First World War. He would serve the entire course of the war, and would suffer shame and confusion when Austria-Hungary lost.

There’s a lingering mystery about Wittgenstein’s years in the First World War — the same kind of mystery that would later surround J. D. Salinger’s years in the Second World War. Wittgenstein was not a broken man after 1918, but he was a man in a broken country, and he drifted. A devoted Roman Catholic of mixed Jewish descent with furtive homosexual desires, he caromed from situation to situation around the shattered territories of Central Europe. He frequented dangerous gay bars, embarrassed about his compulsions. He left the city to became a village schoolteacher in South Austria, where he tried to find balance in his teetering state of mind. Eventually he found himself back in Cambridge, England, addressing a new gaggle of academic philosophers who revered him as the author of the Tractatus.

Wittgenstein was happy to be among professors and advanced theoreticians again, but he had a surprising message for the fans of Tractatus. Everything in the book was wrong.

Thus was born the “late Wittgenstein”, eventual author of Philosophical Investigations, which replaces the stiff numbering system of Tractatus with a dreamy and fanciful sequence of aphorisms that were enumerated with simple integers yet proceeded in no obvious order. Where the early Wittgenstein tried to codify language, the late Wittgenstein would try to show that language could never be codified, and that any attempt to do so was unnatural and unhealthy. Instead, we must learn to accept, embrace and enjoy the ultimate incomprehensibility of language and shared meaning, and thus the ultimate incomprehensibility of existence itself.

There are many thought-provoking passages in this book, but the most well-known is a powerful passage I’ve already quoted on this website twice before. I’m going to quote it yet again, because I remember how explosive these humble words felt to me the first time I read them, and I know that many others have been similarly blown away by these deceptively simple paragraphs. The rambling passage about the word “games” may be the clearest thing Wittgenstein ever wrote; it’s his Sermon on the Mount, and once you understand these examples you’ll never think about language in the same way again.

66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ ” — but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look! —

Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships.

Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear.

When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. — Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis.

Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! sometimes similarities of detail.

And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.

And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and cries-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.

67. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and cries-cross in the same way.-And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a “number”? Well, perhaps because it has a-direct-relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.

But if someone wished to say: “There is something common to all these constructions — namely the disjunction of all their common properties” — I should reply: Now you are only playing with words. One might as well say: “Something runs through the whole thread — namely the continuous overlapping of those fibres”.

How can we communicate with each other if words cannot be actually defined? Sure, words are useful and they are effective, but complex terms cannot be pinned down to exact meaning. The closer you look at the meaning of a word, the more the meaning scatters. We should therefore avoid trying to use words in a rigid way, or else we deny the underlying truth that there is no rigidity in thought itself. There are only the transitory and illusory rigidities that we choose to create.

This conclusion is hardly original to Wittgenstein. Existential philosophers like Nietzsche and Heidegger also urged their readers to abandon vain constructions of logical analysis and try to think and live in more primal ways. Jacques Derrida’s later concepts of deconstruction and differance seem to point towards the same intuitive approach to thinking that Wittgenstein urged. Millennia earlier, of course, Athenian philosophers batted the same problems of language around, and warily circled the same conclusions. The essence of Zen Buddhist philosophy feels very close to the essence of late Wittgenstein: if the above passage about games is not a great koan, I don’t know what is.

Wittgenstein’s approach to thinking is especially helpful when discussing politics, or when attempting to conduct an intelligent debate about public policies. This is one of the philosopher’s greatest values for us today: we need to think like Wittgenstein so we can have better debates.

Here are three concrete ways thinking like Wittgenstein can make a difference in a political debate:

1. Don’t get bogged down in definitions. Enough arguing about the meanings of words! The great ethical philosopher John Rawls tried to define “justice”. A Wittgensteinian wouldn’t bother trying. We may feel what “justice” means, but we could spend our lives trying to arrive at a complete definition of the word without success, and this wouldn’t make our world any more just.

2. Always realize that a person you disagree with may be right at the same time that you are right. A Wittgensteinian does not say “I am right and you are wrong.” A Wittgensteinian might say “I am right and I don’t understand you.” A debate then becomes not an exercise in persuasion but an exercise in communication, an attempt at mutual understanding. Whatever persuasion may take place is more likely to occur after mutual understanding occurs.

3. Always embrace the possibility of change. Once we stop trying to find ultimate definitions for highly significant words like “good” or “evil” or “Communist” or “Capitalist” or “citizen” or “foreigner”, we are able to stop imprisoning ourselves and each other with these definitions. One of the most common philosophical mistakes that arise in political debate is the idea that a label such as “good” or “evil” can stick to a person. We all have a clear idea what “good” or “evil” mean, but that doesn’t mean we can define what they mean. Recognizing the fact that we can’t define “good” or “evil” helps us recognize the fact that we may be flattering ourselves whenever we proudly claim (as human beings tend to do) that we are certifiably “good” and our enemies certifiably “evil”.

Thinking like Wittgenstein will not only help us understand politics better. It will help us understand everything better. The question of whether a human being can be certifiably good or evil brings to mind a friendly disagreement I recently had with an author of a psychology book designed to help people from being victimized by psychopaths who habitually prey on trusting friends. This author has herself been severely harmed by a relationship with a person who turned out to be a psychopath, and she has made it her mission to write articles and books to help others who may be similarly vulnerable.

After reading some of her book, I told my friend that I respected her mission and agreed that it was important, but that I could not accept her crisp and clean division of the world into normal people and psychopaths. I didn’t say it at the time, but what was bothering me was the non-Wittgensteinian insistence that a precise and certifiable definition of “psychopath” could exist.

I suggested to my friend that while psychopathy is clearly a thing — a knot of meaning, like the word “game”, a “family resemblance” — it cannot possibly have a clear definition or test case, and thus her analysis might overreach and damage people who were borderline cases and wished to improve themselves. To call someone a psychopath is to imprison that person inside a word.

We must protect potential victims of psychopaths, but we also must understand the complexity of the classification. Is it possible that a person might act as a psychopath for many years, but then find a way to improve his ability to relate to others? Might some form of religious or psychological or interpersonal awakening help? Might there be a kind of person who acts as a psychopath towards one group of people (say, a cruel boss who mistreats employees) while also being intensely empathetic with another group (say, the boss’s family at home)?

I suggested to my friend that she attempt a new book that serves the same purpose of protecting victims of psychopaths, but also depicts the essential dynamism and changeability of the human personality. She politely responded to my advice, but I don’t think she liked it. She was mainly interested in helping people protect themselves from sociopaths, and didn’t think it would help to introduce the complexity of Wittgensteinian logic into her book. I understand why she felt this way.

Thinking like Wittgenstein isn’t easy, and it doesn’t fit into many of life’s urgent requirements. Often we find it easier to not think like Wittgenstein. This is part of human nature. But it’s also a reason why we often find it so hard to communicate, and to solve problems.

I think the violent disagreements and genocides and wars that have roiled our planet in the last couple hundred of years stand as proof that we’ve taken non-Wittgensteinian logic to an unhealthy extreme. Thinking like Wittgenstein might produce miraculous changes, especially if many of us try it at once. The philosopher who completely reinvented himself by refuting his own most celebrated ideas might help us reinvent ourselves too, if we can be as brave and honest in our thinking as he was.


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