All Your Philosophical Problems are Belong to Us: Wittgenstein Shows Philosophy the Door

So, I’ve been a bit obsessed with Wittgenstein lately.  Once you understand the guy’s arguments, though, it’s pretty hard to shake them.  There are no philosophical problems, we find, only empirical, aesthetic/moral (not moral philosophy, mind you), and logical ones.

The gist of his thinking is that the meaning of most words are determined by human behavior.  Some words are not.  We are tempted into believe that words that are determined by human behavior are like those words that are not.  Take, for example, the classic “is my color red the same as your color red” problem.  He shows us that the phrase “my color red” is nonsense, as in it doesn’t mean anything, like the word shnibble.  The concept is simply not something that we can speak about, as “my experience of the color red” has no shared referant to ground the communication.  We fall victim to the illusion because the grammar of the word “red” is like the word “chair,” but, alas, common grammar means nothing for our purposes.  For more, check the Mark Alford website (a physicist whose website I have been reading compulsively in a desparate attempt to understand quantum mechanics) out or this alternately annoying and hilarious (as per the usual) David Foster Wallace essay.

Philosophical debates about “free will” are also silly, he shows us.  There are as many ways of showing this as there are ways of discussing “free will,” but I’ll give you a couple of examples.  Start with the idea of “willing that you move your leg.”  You may feel free to even actually move your leg as you read in order to facilitate comprehension, but you’ll probably just feel like an idiot when you’re done.  Can you say that you “decided” to move your leg, ergo you have free will?  Why can’t that “decision” itself have been an inevitable mechanical response to the stimulus of a very dry blog post?  The “will” present was just the set of mechanical steps that took place leading you to move your leg.  “Well,” you might say,” I realized that I would feel like an idiot afterwards and ‘decided’ not to do it.”  So what?  Why can’t the mechanical process of deliberating and “deciding” also be pre-determined?  What if Sam Harris tells you that the “decision” was made before you “experienced” it?  Does this mean that there was no “decision” in the sense that we commonly use the phrase?  Are all “decisions” really the same?  You might say that the “experience” of a decision has to instantaneously coincide with the pivotal point in which it is made.  This is also a useless distinction, but I’ve ineffectively harped on about “free will” enough to move on to the related concept of identify, “I”, or self.

His criticism of the concept of “I” are related to the “free will” thing.  We use “I/me” and various other identity formulations for a bunch of loosely related communicative purposes, he says, and this bamboozles us into believing that there is some “I” like a little man inside of us that does all of the thinking and perceiving.  (“I think therefore I am,” anyone?).  Really, “I” am nothing more than just an amalgamation of mechanical processes without any overarching conceptual consistency, or at least without any conceptual consistency that can be meaningfully explored by way of philosophy.

Accordingly, the “hard problem” of consciousness, for him, doesn’t exist.  The hard problem, in short, is the question of how our sense data is turned into the experience thereof.  If you’ve followed me so far, you understand that Ludwig thinks this is nothing more than the grammar of our language getting the better of us.  As he asks in Section 412 of the philosophical investigations, “But what can it mean to speak of “turning my attention on to my own consciousness”?  This is surely the queerest thing there could be!”  Queer indeed, Ludwig, queer in….deed.

Sure there is something there (as there is something there when we see a red color wavelenth or investigate mathematical/scientific determinism) but it can only be meaningfully discussed scientifically.  So, suck it David Chalmers, he might say if he were around today.  He probably wouldn’t say that, but he would probably suggest that he cut his hair.

People, professional philosopher-types included, make all sorts of blatantly wrong claims about him.  For example, someone tells you that he is a linguistic determinist or that he doesn’t believe that neuroscience is a useful discipline, don’t believe them.  He, like he says, “leaves everything as it is,” except for the arguments of philosophers about nonsense concepts.

For those so inclined, here are the Philosophical Investigations.


4 Comments on “All Your Philosophical Problems are Belong to Us: Wittgenstein Shows Philosophy the Door”

  1. Anthony K says:

    I hope this post means DUFL press is getting a second wind.

    Since law school, I’ve been wanting to write a piece on how Wittgenstein’s language games intersect with power. For example, the community that gets to define what “marriage” means gets to decide how people structure their lives and what kinds of state violence are permissible.

    I guess I just disagree that Wittgenstein only matters for philosophers. The idea that ‘marriage’ or ‘the individual’ or ‘property’ has some essence, rather then simply reflecting social choices, has produced real harms in how laws and institutions are designed. Chicago can’t ban concealed guns and people can’t get married because of how politicians and judges define words.

    Probably all “search for the true meaning of X” stuff is “nonsense,” but it’s the nonsense that sets the rules people live and die by. And it’s nonsense that decides whether or not they have access to resources. I really don’t know anything about his politics, but what I take from Wittgenstein is that we should stop trying pretending to identify the essence of some word and just confront the social issues actually at stake.

  2. Matt M says:

    Well, legally defining “marriage,” “individual,” and “property” is effectively a philosophical exercise for all practical purposes, so there is a sense in which Wittgenstein still mainly matters for philosophical inquiry. All rule-following breaks down at some point, that’s what we spend all of our time exploring with the Socratic method in law school. That doesn’t mean that rules aren’t useful or effective, just that they are not things that have some “true meaning” in an empirical or a priori sense. Wittgenstein also seemed to believe that all language involves some manner of mythology, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So….there’s that.

    I stumbled across this Anil Shankar guy’s great article on the subject of Wittgenstein and the law. I think it’s better than anything I’ve read by any officially sanctioned philosopher-type on the topic.

    P.M.S. Hacker also has a paper or few where he points out that criminal law is based on some silly sense of “volition” for which we have no empirical evidence. Sam Harris basically says the same thing, but I hate to give that guy credit for anything other than brilliant interpretation of data from his poorly designed experiments.

  3. Anthony K says:

    I didn’t mean to imply that all rules are arbitrary or that we shouldn’t have rules. My point was that we should be pragmatic about choosing rules and honest about who they benefit and harm.

    The other thing I took away from Wittgenstein is that you can’t escape language games. Like Terrance Hayes wrote, “I too, having lost faith / in language have placed my faith in language…” Even if we stop believing in a priori nonsense, it’s still just a bunch of words that will decide who gets rights and money, and who gets nothing. I appreciate the links.

    I think I’ve recommended this to you before, but I think you’d really like Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He was a physicist who gave a very Wittgensteinian history of science. It’s hard to summarize in a few lines, but the idea is that there is no objective language for describing reality. We can describe things using words like mass and wavelengths or quantums, but these things are still infused with human priorities, and still rooted in human grammar. (Does the universe care about nouns and verbs?)

    The point is, there is more than one way to describe the universe. Newtonian physics isn’t wrong; neither is Einsteinian physics; neither is quantum mechanics. They’re all just different vocabularies we use pragmatically depending on what we want to accomplish. Change in the sciences (or in economics) depends on which community’s language controls. There is no “true” language for talking about the universe. It’s got human goals written all throughout it.

  4. Matt M says:

    On a related note, albeit unrelated to Wittgenstein, check out this FAQ on the many worlds hypothesis.

    It resolves the problems of 1) faster-than-light transmission of info in the EPR paradox arising from the the Copenhagen interpretation, 2) the amount of vitalism or whatever necessary needed for an “observer” to collapse a quantum wave function, 3) quantum gravity and 4) other things. All that’s required is the little matter of every thermodynamically irreversible process interacting with a quantum event leading to branching off a set of worlds in which every possible outcome of that process happens.

    Is it utterly irrelevant to our lives? Probably, but that hasn’t stopped me.

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