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A Philosophic Monument
on October 5, 2016
It is hard for me to imagine anything more presumptuous than my doing a review of LW’s Philosophical Investigations. As a general reader who lacks the background in Russell/Frege/Moore, et al. to contextualize LW’s thought, I can hopefully speak for the interested amateurs out there who are considering buying the book.
First, this is a scholarly edition. It presents the German text and the English translation on facing pages. The copy text, if you will, for the translation is that of G.E.M. Anscombe, but it is revised by P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. Wittgensteinians study LW’s writings word by word, and some of the translation choices have been disputed. The book also contains endnotes and a substantial index. Considering the accumulated elements of apparatus and the density of the text, the price is a bargain. This is, after all, one of the most important books of 20thc philosophy.
It is, of course, quite skeptical of the philosophic enterprise. LW believed that the ‘problems’ of philosophy were essentially self-created and result from the constraints posed by language. That which we cannot speak of, LW argued, was what was truly important. The rest was a series of muddles. The book consists of two parts, the second renamed “Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment.” The first consists (crudely speaking) of an extensive set of observations on language and communication, the second on perception and behavior. These observations are stated with great lucidity though we can feel the weight of reflection that stands behind them. We can also feel the weight of previous philosophic opinion, though LW is very sparing in his mention of other philosophers. His immediate predecessors are mentioned and he cites both Plato and Augustine (quoting the latter in Latin). He mentions William James, but on his predecessors he tends to remain silent. When he reflects on causality, e.g., he does not engage directly with Hume, though it is clear that Hume is in his thoughts. He anticipates much contemporary neuroscience, in, e.g., his discussion of the problems of ‘consciousness’, but he does not provide extensive references.
At a number of points (a very small number of points) he states his aims and his conclusions with great specificity:
“Philosophy is a struggle against the bewitchment of our understanding by the resources of our language” (#109).
“What I want to teach is: to pass from unobvious nonsense to obvious nonsense” (#464).
“A whole cloud of philosophy condenses into a drop of grammar” (#315).
“What is your aim in philosophy? – To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” (#309).
He is (expectedly) hard on psychology:
“The confusion and barrenness of psychology is not to be explained by its being a ‘young science’; its state is not comparable with that of physics, for instance, in its beginnings . . . . For in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion. . . . The existence of the experimental method makes us think that we have the means of getting rid of the problems which trouble us; but problem and method pass one another by” (II, #371).
There are other memorable passages which I will allow the reader to discover for him- or herself.
I would describe this book as a necessary read for anyone interested in the history of philosophy and the course of modern thought. Even if one is not prepared to dissect it in detail, it is a pleasure to watch a brilliant mind at work, tracing an outline of thought that has been immensely influential.