in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Ludwig Wittgenstein - Anti-Philosopher: Reflections on 20 years of Teaching Wittgenstein in the Class-Room

My good friend and colleague, Prof Jose Nandhikkara CMI of Bangalore, has kindly asked me to write an article for his excellent Dharmaram Journal on Wittgenstein and pedagogy. I am just nearing the final proofs but thought I would append some 'edited highlights' (as is usual on this site) for your amusement. It also ended up as a reflection on 20 years of teaching Wittgenstein... quite a thought!

Best wishes as always.

1. Introduction: ‘Showing the fly the way out of the fly-bottle’
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) famously characterised the aim of his philosophy as showing ‘the fly the way out of the fly-bottle’.[1] Much ink has been spilt as to what exactly he meant by this phrase and, indeed, the major thrust of his philosophy tout court (as we shall see shortly). In this article I shall present one interpretation of the phrase. My argument will be that by working on the gossamer-light interface between what can and cannot be said, Wittgenstein’s philosophy gently coaxes each reader from the ensnaring prison of the discursive intellect to a wider, non-discursive, Blick or view on existence. In so doing the philosopher, rather like the therapist, cannot confine herself simply to words but must work on the subtle choreography between saying and showing.
            Recent commentators such as Alain Badiou have gone so far as to suggest that Wittgenstein is better considered as an ‘anti-philosopher’ who attacks the very roots of Western philosophy itself. Beginning, therefore, with a brief review of some of the problems of Wittgensteinian interpretation that have arisen in the half century since his death in 1951, I shall then turn my attention to two ways in which the Austrian encourages his readers to ‘work on themselves’, that is, through the development of the Übersichtliche Blick and a discourse that moves from thinking to seeing to acting. I shall conclude that although some of Wittgenstein’s unorthodox methods may trouble or disturb his readers, his ultimate aim stays deeply wedded to the ancient quest to root philosophy in wonderment. In this respect, I will argue, we can see his philosophy as much as therapy as pedagogy – a true working on the soul.
2. Reading Wittgenstein: Theory and Therapy
Surveying the reactions to Wittgenstein’s work nearly fifty years after his death, Rorty in his essay “Keeping Philosophy Pure” summed up the position thus:
Academic philosophy in our day stands to Wittgenstein as intellectual life in Germany in the first decades of the last century stood to Kant. Kant had changed everything, but no one was sure just what Kant had said – no one was sure what in Kant to take seriously and what to put aside.[2]
In this essay, Rorty suggests that Wittgenstein’s writings throw down a gauntlet to all who read them, especially professional philosophers. The challenge to enter the ‘transcendental standpoint’ of the Tractatus and the further challenge of the ‘twice born’ to resist this temptation and the challenge to both of the ‘pure of heart’ expounded in the Philosophical Investigations that transcends the need to ‘explain, justify and expound’. In tracing this distinction, which Hutto calls the ‘theoretical and the therapeutic’,[3] Rorty emphasises the importance of the Tractatus for those who have expounded Wittgenstein from the former point and the importance of the Investigations for those of the latter disposition. This distinction between the emphases of the work of the ‘earlier’ and ‘later’ Wittgenstein, and this possible distinction between a theoretical and an anti-theoretical approach to his writings, has been a constant since the voluminous Wittgensteinian secondary literature began to swell. As Pears puts it, in these later works “he is moving away from theorizing and towards plain description of the phenomenon of language.”[4]
Consequently, amongst the Wittgensteinian secondary literature we see a split between those commentators who see the work of the later Wittgenstein as continuing the work of the earlier Wittgenstein and those who see a new anti-theoretical shift in the post-Tractatus works. To add to the confusion, a recent book, The Third Wittgenstein: The Post-Investigations Works[5] has argued that the parts of the Nachlass that have appeared charting the latter period of Wittgenstein’s life, in particular On Certainty, suggest a third interpretation of Wittgenstein that transcends even the position developed in the Investigations.
We are thus left with four possible ways of viewing his works in the authors of the secondary literature:
1.      Those who remain with the traditional division between the ‘earlier’ and the ‘later’ Wittgenstein and see the later works, especially the Investigations, as a critique of the earlier works, especially the Tractatus. Representative of this trend would be Peter Hacker whose Wittgenstein: Connections and Controversies makes this point.[6]
2.      The so-called ‘new Wittgensteinians’ who see a theoretical union between the early and later Wittgenstein and reject any notion of a firm break between the two.[7]
3.      Those who regard the ‘third Wittgenstein’ of the ‘post-Investigations works’ (so-called) as presenting a third and more radical departure from the Wittgensteinian corpus.
4.      To these three interpretations, we could possibly add a fourth, a growing body of Wittgenstein scholars who, following Wittgenstein’s own remarks in the latter works of moving from the theoretical to the practical, or from saying to showing want to emphasise the importance of the biographical elements of Wittgenstein’s life and use them to gain a more complete picture of what his thought was trying to achieve. Again, a key collection of essays, Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy[8] has acted as a vessel for presenting this interpretative strand. Included in this group would be those (such as myself) who want to also emphasis the Wittgenstein’s role as a therapist as much as a theoretician or logician.
3.  Wittgenstein as Therapist
One of the first writers to emphasise the ‘therapeutic’ within Wittgenstein’s writing was Stanley Cavell.[9] By the time Alice Crary’s collection The New Wittgenstein came out in 2000 it seemed as though the notion had influenced a whole generation of Wittgensteinian scholars. The authors collected there, Crary suggested, shared an interpretation of Wittgenstein’s work as a) a unified whole and b) broadly ‘therapeutic’ in nature. This emphasises the shift in recent Wittgensteinian scholarship away from the understanding of his work as largely theoretical (or, in Rorty’s words, largely concerned with the reactions and concerns of fellow ‘professional philosophers’) to an understanding which is built around seeing his work as contributing to individual existential development.[10] For Crary this ‘therapeutic aim’ is largely around helping us to see the ‘sources of philosophical confusion’ we hold by replacing a need for a metaphysical view of language to a concern with the observation of the  running of language as a means to solving philosophical confusion. Thus, for Cavell, the aim of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is to bring us back from metaphysical speculation to the everyday discourse of ‘forms of life’ (Lebensformen) where language has its natural home. Whereas Cavell et al are primarily concerned with the purely philosophical consequences of a reading of Wittgenstein’s work other contemporary authors have gone further and ascribed to Wittgenstein a therapeutic agenda that goes beyond the purely philosophical. In this respect there has been a growing movement to connect Wittgenstein’s writings with psychotherapeutic literature, beginning of course with his fellow Viennese theorist, Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939). Wittgenstein saw the value of Freud’s work not as a pseudo-scientist but in the function of Freudian analysis as ‘aspect-changing’:
When a dream is interpreted we might say that it is fitted into a context in which it ceases to be puzzling. In a sense the dreamer re-dreams his dream in surroundings such that its aspect changes
In considering what a dream is, it is important to consider what happens to it, the way its aspect changes when it is brought into relation with other things remembered, for instance. (LC: 45 -46)Lectures and Conversatons on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Ed C. Barrett. Oxford: Blackwell 1989
 4. Teaching Wittgenstein's Anti-Philosophy 
Teaching Wittgenstein is, of course, notoriously difficult. Twenty years ago I was assigned a class of undergraduates and told to teach them Wittgenstein. Needless to say it was a disaster as I taught his texts ‘straight’ like any other classical philosopher such as Kant or Locke – trying to get the class to repeat and memorise his arguments by rote (perhaps I was unconsciously emulated Ludwig as a young man who ended up impatiently cuffing the school-children who couldn’t follow his ice-cold but brilliant thought processes...). Two decades later, following the interpretation I have developed in this article, I take an entirely different approach. Having given a preliminary lecture, not unlike the contents of this paper, I then get the students to read the texts themselves and reflect upon them. From the ‘form of life’ that develops in the group from the interaction of saying and showing the true message, and transformational work, of Wittgenstein begins to happen (much, indeed, as he taught philosophy himself in Cambridge towards the end of his life). By using language, similes and metaphors in unusual and provocative ways I have found that Wittgenstein brings us back to what we knew already but were unable to express in words. In conclusion, then, it may be worth recalling the work of Badiou whom I mentioned earlier, who termed Wittgenstein an ‘anti-philosopher’. The role of the ‘anti-philosopher’, says Badiou, has three key elements:[11]
1.      They present ‘a linguistic, logical, genealogical critique of the statements of philosophy... an unraveling of the pretensions of philosophy to constitute itself a theory’.
2.      They see that philosophy is ‘an act, of which fabulations about ‘truth’ are clothing, the propaganda, the lies.’ (cf. T 4.112 ‘Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity’).
3.      They realise that the philosophical act “must install an active non-thought beyond all meaningful propositions, beyond all thought, which also means beyond all science... The antiphilosophical act consists in letting what there is show itself, insofar as ‘what there is’ is precisely that which no true proposition can say.”[12]
Badiou’s ‘anti-method’ is then, I conclude, the spirit with which we should approach Wittgenstein’s works as a guide to pedagogy – an approach that through the use of Übersichtliche Darstellung and astonishment will stimulate the move from thinking to seeing to acting that will lead to the position described finally at the end of the Tractatus: “There are indeed things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”[13] But rather than ‘anti-philosopher’ I would rather conclude that Wittgenstein is the philosopher of wonderment par excellence.

[1] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, G. E. M. Anscombe and R. Rhees, Oxford: Blackwell, 1958, 309.
[2]R. Rorty, “Keeping Philosophy Pure,” in Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays 1972 – 1980), Brighton: Harvester, 1982, 20.
[3]D. Hutto, Wittgenstein and the End of Philosophy: Neither Theory nor Therapy, London: Macmillan, 2003.
[4]D. F. Pears, The False Prison: A Study of the Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy, Volume 1, Oxford: Clarendon, 1988, 218.
[5]D. Moyal-Sharrock, The Third Wittgenstein: The Post-Investigations Works., London: Ashgate, 2004.
[6]P. M. S. Hacker, Wittgenstein: Connections and Controversies, Oxford: Clarendon, 2001.
[7]A. Crary, and R. Read, The New Wittgenstein, London: Routledge, 2000.
[8]J. Klagge, Wittgenstein: Biography and Philosophy, Cambridge: CUP, 2001.
[9]S. Cavell, S. Must We Mean What We Say? Oxford: OUP, 1976; The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality and Tragedy, Oxford: OUP, 1979.
[10]In this vein see, for example, J. Nandhikkara, Being Human after Wittgenstein: A Philosophical Anthropology, Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 2011.
[11]Badiou, Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, 75-76.
[12]Badiou, Wittgenstein’s Antiphilosophy, 80.
[13](T 6.522).


  1. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find an introduction to a unique Philosopher and Artist whose work begins where Wittgenstein inevitably got stuck. In other words he really did climb the ladder of Wittgenstein's propositions and then jumped off into the Infinite Love-Bliss-Radiance in and as which all of this is floating.
    1. multiple references on how to do philosophy and/or "theology" as a self-outgrowing and self-transcending Process
    2. multiple more-than-wonderful references
    3. an introduction to Adi Da's Divine Image Art
    4. radical somatic ontology
    5. Love of the Two Armed Form
    6. SHAKTI
    7. The Spiritual Gospel of Saint Jesus Retold - especially section 17 on the big-time talkers who presume to rule the world
    7. an introduction to The Aletheon (The Truth Book)
    8. an introduction to The Orpheum Trilogy
    9. - an introduction to The Scapegoat Book (book 3 of the above trilogy)

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