Once again I’ve waited until the day that Emmanuel College’s Wittgenstein group meets to write the latest blog post. It’s November. Give me a break. As with previous posts, numbers refer to section numbers, not page numbers.
Who Needs What?
No sentence needs an explanation; instead, we need explanations if we misunderstand the sentence (87). Thus begins the exploration of whether quests for “exact” with our language, to find the “essence” of language. Ultimately Wittgenstein keeps referring and deferring the inquiry to the particular moment. Focusing there, he insists, both limits the possibilities for valid inquiry and opens up ways in which the inquiry can go, but as with previous sections, there’s little room either for total abandonment of “rules” or for “rules” that govern the totality of language. Instead language remains an open system, always susceptible to novelty (thus “open”) while following the rules that usage lay down (thus “system”). Or, to put it another way, the fact that sentences make sense means that “there must be perfect order” in any language that we experience as language (98).
The quest for an ideal distorts the ways that we see and think about language. An ideal is not for the sake of ruling things in and out but for the sake of thinking about our thinking. To see the “actual application” (100) of the term “game,” description is ultimately a more important task than definition, whose main concerns are ruling-in and ruling-out. Undue concern with our ideal definitions fools us into dissatisfaction with language as it actually occurs (105), and the more we examine language as it actually occurs, the more distance opens up between abstract rule-sets and real languages (107). In a side box after section 108, Wittgenstein proposes, for the sake of illustration, that asking “What is a word, really?” is something like asking “What is a piece in chess?” The wrong sorts of abstract questions lead to entirely unhelpful questions, as if the sort of wood or plastic or stone were the “essential” property of a rook.
This is What Philosophy Does
Does a subject-verb statement, properly analyzed, always yield some variation of “This is the case”? Such might seem an esoteric question at first glance, but just underneath is the question of what philosophy actually does. If in fact the nature of language doesn’t reduce easily to one form of statement (as Wittgenstein himself posited earlier in his career, quoting his own folly in section 114 of Philosophical Investigations), what does philosophy actually do in the face of language? The answer, to put things briefly: philosophy describes things.
Wittgenstein writes about a process of discovery (119) at the heart of philosophy, not a smoothing-out of bumps but an attention precisely to the places where assumed rules don’t hold and an ad-hoc concern with those bumpy places. Thus when philosophy asks what philosophy is, that’s not “second order” but precisely the primary thing that philosophy does (121). So the practice, as Wittgenstein sets it forth, is concerned precisely with the ways in which “philosophy” as a concept is part of “philosophy” as a practice, and if that defies the rules we think we bring, so much the better.
Thus, for what my reading is worth, the central claim of this section: “Philosophy must not interfere in any way with the actual use of language, so it can in the end only describe it” (124). I have to assume that Wittgenstein is aware, as he writes that sentence, of Karl Marx’s famous call for philosophy not to interpret the world but to change it. Either way, Wittgenstein has mapped out a very particular role for philosophy, such that he can speculate that “If someone were to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them” (128). Just before that (why retain the original order of things?), he claims, along similar lines, that “The work of the philosopher consists in marshalling recollections for a particular purpose” (127).
Wittgenstein’s project is not to make language more “scientific,” then, but to observe language as language happens, to describe things so that those of us who are disposed towards abstractions (of the positive or the negative sort) and remind us actually to look at what’s happening. It’s at once a humble and a revolutionary project: since observation and reporting observation are always so closely related, such a task means seeing what, in other circumstances and for other reasons, we’ve rendered ourselves incapable of seeing. And because language is always on the move, it’s an ongoing project, not something to be completed and then relayed to the public but always on the way.
In the last few pages the group read for last time, Wittgenstein writes in a side note that “There is not a single philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, different therapies, as it were” (133d). That’s what the book has been doing up to this point, and that’s what it continues to do as we keep reading together. For a philosophy of language to be whole, parts must neither remain “cut off” by artificial designations nor be indistinguishable because we’ve given up on “rules.” Instead the project unfolds as we go, and the philosopher acts as a therapist (how right Boethius was, no?), helping us to see what before we refused to see and to stop pretending that we see what we’d only prefer to see.