Is All of Philosophy Just Wordplay?

The famous Austrian-British twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is undisputedly one of my favorites as lectures on his philosophy involved numerous riveting discussions on the genius’ evolution from a rationalist, sharing grounds with famous mathematicians, to a logical mind facing critical judgment from Bertrand Russell, to a complete anti-philosopher professing ordinary language philosophy. The beauty of the man’s arguments, juxtaposed with careful examination of his personal life and inner conflicts speaks volumes about how his philosophy morphed over time.

Born to an affluent, artistic family of musicians, Wittgenstein had a lineage of depression in his roots. So did it contain a lineage of dark matters, as three of Wittgenstein’s four brothers committed suicide. Even his sexuality was ambiguous, and he was tormented by the obscurity and discomfort of his sexuality. Also, there was an inherent profound self-hatred because of him being a Jew hiding out in Britain. All this reflected vividly in the books he wrote, the first one being Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Treatise of Logical Philosophy). A mechanical engineer from Berlin, Wittgenstein readily came under the influence of great mathematicians of his time, namely Bertrand Russell and AN Whitehead who jointly contributed to the Principia Mathematica. In the book, he argued that propositions show the logical form of reality and display it. Also, all of the everyday incidents could be broken down into simple, logical propositions which have a truth value. These signify what is being received by the senses. The rest constitute meta-statements which cannot be proven.

Having acquired a very rational, logical stance in his book, Wittgenstein summed up his seventh set with a single proposition, the famous “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” This was heavily criticized by Russell, an agnostic, who was not very happy with the idea that the meaning of the world lies outside of it and Wittgenstein’s connections with an otherworldly, mystical philosophy.

I was surprised to learn how such a deep-seated philosopher turned to anti-epistemology in his book, ‘Philosophical Investigations’, a collection of aphorisms which suggested that all of his previously written works and the works of other philosophers were absurd and unnecessary. Here, he stressed upon the importance of ordinary life as opposed to posing serious and unanswerable philosophical doubts and questions. At this point, he had broken off from Bertrand Russell and was moving toward ordinary language philosophy, advocated by Oxford professors. He compared philosophers to mere flies trapped in a bottle, circling around in the entrapment, and his book showed them the way out of the fly bottle. It is interesting to note that the philosopher Wittgenstein is talking about here is really himself. Some people have commented that his work of anti-philosophy really is a beautiful work of philosophy.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein demystifies language and says that every word is associated with a meaning which depends on the usage. They are simply tools in a toolbox. The only difference lies in the relative understanding of words between individuals. But this is not a philosophical puzzle, rather a mere functional puzzle which can be sorted out using a simple ordinary understanding of language. It is the conceptual confusions regarding language that causes most philosophical problems, which are really insignificant and irrelevant. He, therefore, nullifies his initial arguments made in the Tractatus.

Inspired by Wittgenstein, Oxford philosophers such as JL Austin, GEM Anscombe, and Gilbert Ryle came up with the concept of ordinary language philosophy, which propagates the idea that philosophers, through the distortion of everyday words, engender philosophical problems that they themselves are employed to solve. This forms a circular mesh. I followed up on this on the internet to find that this obviously garnered substantial criticism, such as the fact that certain things like the questions of death, afterlife or God have to be reached through by ‘philosophical’ use of language as ordinary contexts fail in these cases. Also, Wittgenstein seems to essentially be professing that there was no general solution to an issue apart from the community norms, which fails since communities are not stable or ‘ultimate’. Hence, his later philosophy fails when we talk of cross-cultural issues.

Although not a solipsist, Wittgenstein had an interest in solipsism, which he probably got from Schopenhauer. This is reflected in lines such as “The world is my world” from Tractatus, by which he means he has a view of the world not shared by others which are mostly inexpressible. It is also argued that he probably felt solipsism itself had a lot of confusion inherent in it, which goes with the ambivalent attitude he had himself on philosophy.

I found certain arguments of Wittgenstein deeply intriguing, and certainly intend to study him more. David Jarman’s film on Wittgenstein is equally inviting as was Wittgenstein’s philosophy, and although I haven’t watched all of it yet, I am sure my curiosities shall lead me to it soon.

Literature | Philosophy | {Computer Science}