What Wittgenstein did in this book, it seems to me, was to locate philosophy as “practice” in society, through his arguments about language, obviously a creation of society, and hence immersed in (as he put it in the forward) “the broad stream of social life”. Before and while writing Investigations, Wittgenstein had had long discussions with a colleage at Cambridge, Piero Sraffa, a Marxist and friend of Antonio Gramsci. Sraffa tired of Wittgenstein, but nonetheless the key element of his contribution to Wittgenstein’s argument is fundamental: we conduct our philosophy within language, a social construct that changes and develops, and as our language changes, our thinking changes with it: what is possible, what is not possible, how ideas can be expressed, what makes them sensible, or not…all part of some form of language or other. So there is something in our language which sets boundaries as to what we can think, and when those boundaries are reached, there are the limits of our thinking – till they are widened, or crushed, or altered.
Moreover, these rules, or lack of them, or limits or lack of them, are rooted in our society. They are not “out there” somewhere beyond us, but here with us and in us, in our “social gristle”.
So while other philosophers were on about whether free will exists or not (for example), or syllogisms, Wittgenstein was on about the rules of thinking as rules of language, thinking as, if you like, the expressions of those rules.
Once this is understood, philosophy changes completely, and Wittgenstein was notorious in hisTractatus days for claiming that once philosophical practice is seen as a form of language “game”, then the problems of philosophy others found vexing would simply disappear.
I don’t think this is right: what they do, is to appear in a new light. But that light is truly different, revolutionary, a revelation. It is no surprise that “linguistic philosophy” is now the major philosophical approach in western universities.
Karl Popper took the Tractatus to bits in The Open Society and Its Enemies, and rightly so: Wittgenstein’s method there was much less sophisticated than it was in Investigations. Popper, writing in New Zealand as a refugee from Nazism, may not have known that Wittgenstein had repudiated his early work, so that he was pricking at a balloon already punctured by its inflator.
What this has done for me is, as I wrote at the beginning, to return philosophy to the notion that the Greeks had of it: that it wasn’t to decide if the world exists or not (for example), but to decide how to live, the right way to live. Systematic philosophy – that can be said to have begun with yet another of Socrates’ pupils, Aristotle (via Plato), took philosophy by stages away from this, and while fields like ethics have been a concern of philosophy always, somehow it has not been the same.
With Wittgenstein, all the balls are back in play, on the broad pitch of our social life.
This is inspiring to me. It is not troublesome, even if it is wrong: I just like it, as I love language in general – the way we make and use words to communicate – and this language, this “English”. I like the feeling that, when I am writing, it is not just me writing, that there is something bigger than me, that is pulsing through my feeble brain to create what “I” create. Of course this is true of everyone, of the most childish rant to the most sophisticated analysis, to the expression of abstract thought in symbols indecipherable by me. But it makes writing a really exciting thing to do: to consider, as I do it, where my words and expressions come from, and what they are likely to be taken to convey by someone I have never met, in another part of the world, perhaps (as I hope) in another era, long after I am gone.
And that makes me a terrific reader too! When Shakespeare reaches out to me, or Euripides, or Plato or Epictetus, any of these old fogeys from long ago, it stops being a one way street: these people are communicating with me, but the way they do it is creative, and their work is not just “as they wrote it” but “as I read it”.
Maybe Wittgenstein himself would think this is all tosh. I don’t know. I hope not, but if he were to suddenly appear in my lounge and commence laughing at me, it would be ok. He sifted through my thought, and gave me this idea.
When I was in Vienna on a cycling tour more than a decade ago, I visited the house he had partly designed (it was then an embassy), just to have a look…it was a modest modernist affair; it had combed through the architectural dictionary, added a few wrinkles, and moved on…
Anyone who has got through this deserves more than stars – have eight of these, and add some lollipops from the local dairy…don’t get through them all on the same day, hear?