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Most Important Philosophical Work of the 20th century,
This review is from: Philosophical Investigations: The German Text, with a Revised English Translation 50th Anniversary Commemorative Edition (Hardcover)
`Philosophical Investigations' by Ludwig Wittgenstein is arguably the most important philosophical work of the 20th century, followed close behind by Wittgenstein's earlier work, the `Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus'. While the earlier work was heavily influenced and endorsed by Bertrand Russell, who was always better known than his Austrian colleague in the world at large, the latter work is a complete departure from the logic based philosophy of Russell and the Logical Positivists, for whom the Tractatus was their bible. Although I have never seen this in any philosophical or historical analysis of Wittgenstein's work, the `Philosophical Investigations' were much closer to the `common sense' style of philosophy of G. E. Moore than to the thinking of Russell. All three were Cambridge dons and it is certain that Wittgenstein and Moore knew one another very well. The only thing which may have prevented Moore's ideas from influencing Wittgenstein is that the latter man was a much deeper thinker whose ideas still shape modern philosophy while Moore has become something of a footnote in the history of philosophy, best known for his common sense defense of the real world and his `naturalistic fallacy' invention in his pretentiously titled `Principia Ethica'.
Wittgenstein and Moore certainly were the joint parents of modern English and American academic philosophical style and doctrines. While Wittgenstein did not publish very much in his lifetime, his influence is widespread and deep due to his long tenure as a teacher at Cambridge, from the early thirties to his death in 1955. As abstruse as Wittgenstein's philosophy may seem at first look, it is really exceptionally applicable to everyday thinking. One of my favorite stories about Wittgenstein is in a memoir written by the American philosopher and Wittgenstein student, Norman Malcolm. During World War II, Wittgenstein and Malcolm were chatting about something the Germans had done and Malcolm said it was against the English character to do any similar action. At this comment, Wittgenstein lost his temper at how his student, Malcolm could make such a statement which so totally went against Wittgenstein's teachings. A much less anecdotal application of his thought is his notion of `family resemblences' expounded early in the `Philosophical Investigations' as a tool for analyzing the meanings of words. His example was the notion of games. Try as you might, someone can probably find a counterexample to virtually any definition of games which will fit into a reasonably sized dictionary definition. Wittgenstein's solution was that everything which can be called a game has a `family resemblance' to other games and does not have a family resemblance to most things which are not games.
This is just one tool and two examples of the extreme empiricism in Wittgenstein's thought. While there is a world of difference in the styles of Wittgenstein and the great Scottish philosopher David Hume, there is a strong `family resemblance' between their doctrines in that neither was in the least congenial to generalizations of any sort. The biggest difference between the doctrines of Wittgenstein and Hume is that while Hume was concerned with what we can know, Wittgenstein was concerned with the meanings of what we say and write.
Wittgenstein's most famous doctrine in the `Investigations' is that to determine the meaning of words and ideas, look at how they are used. This became his E=mc squared. All his students wielded this doctrine like a bludgeon to beat any `old school' position into submission.
Although the doctrines of the Tractatus and the Investigations are quite different, Wittgenstein's style of writing in aphorisms appears in both works and appears in virtually every posthumous collection of his notes which have been published in the last 60 years. Unlike Nietzsche, this style was not an artifice or merely done for effect. Wittgenstein's thinking was so intense I think he simply did not have the patience to connect the dots between his primary inspirations.
After the notion of `use' and `family resemblences, the most important position in the Investigations may be his arguments against the notion of a private language. While no one in everyday life has the slightest notion that they may be talking in a private language, the concept is central to the refutation of many older philosophical positions as diverse as those of Bishop Berkeley and Rene Descartes. The concept simply was that a language that is by its nature understandable by only its creator is not possible. It is not a language.
While Wittgenstein's own works stayed close to everyday language or mathematical thinking, the great virtue of the `Philosophical Investigations' over the system of the Tractatus is that the later work creates tools which may intelligently be applied to all kinds of discourse, from Ethics to Aesthetics to Politics to Religion. The later work does not turn its back on these things as some may have seen in the earlier work when it relegated virtually all discourse not about the natural world to the bin of meaninglessness. Since Wittgenstein's intention was to show the emptiness of metaphysics, he followed his thinking to its logical conclusion and threw the baby out with the bathwater in the Tractatus.
One of the most indelible images imprinted on my thinking from my study of the `Philosophical Investigations' is the comment that the search for the solution to a philosophical problem is often like trying to force open a locked door, when all you need to do is turn around to see the open window. This is the notion of thinking outside the box writ large.
Some of Wittgenstein's ideas can be very easy to grasp, like the notion of `family resemblences'. Others like the concept of a private language may be very, very hard. This means that even a nonprofessional can come away with something from this very, very important book.