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« The Game of the Liar's Paradox | Main | How Wittgenstein Came to Captivate Me So Much »

the Value of "Philosophy" after Wittgenstein

[sent to analytic]

Hi Stuart.

Regarding your comments below, I offer the following.

1. One of the reasons that philosophy as a social club may not like Wittgensteinian thinking is purely for reasons of politics and social-group dynamics. The person who ends the club's big business isn't really going to be kept around as its beacon, if for no other reason than it makes for bad self interest.

2. But I think another reason why philosophy as a social club had to turn away from Wittgenstein was simply that no one could replicate his methods. All that people could do was either half-understand his ideas and criticize them, or come closer to understanding and teach them. In this sense Wittgenstein was almost religious (messianic). One had to decipher the word and wonder about the way. Because no one could "pick up the ball" as it were, philosophy as a social group had no choice but at some point to proceed with club activity. Incidentally, that is why this generation of club champions refer to Ludwig's methods as OLP, something which is (a) group ideology; and (b) not a very good understanding of what he was saying. 

3. But I think all of this Wittgensteinian-dissing is really problematic (on the part of the club). Because it seems to me that, even in the wake of Ludwig's discoveries, that philosophy still retains two extremely important missions. One of them it shares with history; the other with religion. Let me explain. The two missions are:

(a) It trains students in thinking exercises, the skills of which become helpful when exported into other disciplines. Just as history "perspectifies" (made that one up!) but is quite inadequate when left unto itself, so too does philosophy give a kind of perspective that is most useful when applied to a real problem. Show me any scientist or intellectual who doesn't understand history or philosophy, and I will show you a narrow mind and an incomplete intellectual/scientist. Now, this might not be true of pure trades. I imagine an accountant doesn't need to know history/philosophy to be a good accountant. But lawyers, judges, political scientists, artists -- you name it -- can benefit. In this sense, philosophy is an exercise room for a certain kind of cognition. 

(b) It carries on its "word." The fact of the matter is that the ideas that most philosophy professors have today in the social club are irrelevant. Or better yet: they are only relevant to themselves (to the group). This is true of all disciplines I think. The vast majority of club members do not produce anything original or lasting -- they just refurbish old ideas and go to conferences. But out of the club rituals -- out of keeping the activity alive -- someday someone spectacular will emerge as the generations pass. And hence, philosophy's story will continue. This is the function that philosophy has that it shares with religion. (I'm not saying that religion actually produces messiahs or anything; I'm saying it believes its group function is to pass on the word so that when critical events happen, the group across time is ready. By similar measure, philosophy as a social club keeps passing its story to people who don't produce breakthroughs, so
that, someday, someone will get the story and produce one) . 

4. Another thing that should be said about Wittgenstein's views about the role of philosophy is that they are not really understood well. Much of it gets lost in the language game. Because if philosophy is only a social club -- like a rotary -- well, then it needs no natural method. You can have people do logic, do experiments, make use of empirical literature, etc., in order to talk about things philosophy traditionally implicates. But if philosophy is a method -- and if Wittgenstein was right that it consists only in "untangling knots" caused by confusion in the language game -- then we have two conclusions: (a)  knot-fixing is still helpful; and (b) it needs to be used outside of ordinary philosophy to do the most good (so we don't have the problem of "animal belief" "I followed my ideology today," for example). And hence, we are now left with the following conclusions:

1. social clubbers caught in a meaningless tradition paradoxically have value (see (a) and (b))
2. social clubbers who are innovating and not doing philosophy-properly-conceived are still doing neat stuff, although it is not "really philosophy strictly speaking"
3. those who are untangling knots in other disciplines where it would be most useful are not numerous enough and in need of recruitment. (Translation to the social club: teach more Wittgenstein please!!!)

(P.S. You know, I don't know why philosophy isn't taught like a professional school, where the last subject you take is where they explain it was all just an exercise).

Dr. Sean Wilson, Esq.
Assistant Professor
Wright State University
New Website:
SSRN papers:


However, Wittgenstein does pose a problem for the philosophically
inclined since, if you take him at his word, there isn't a lot for
philosophers to do. Here we are on a list (or in some other venue)
banging back and forth about competing ideas we have about things.
While useful in getting clearer about this or that, what does it
really deliver for us in the end? Unless we're teaching as you are,
what is added to the world? And teaching philosophy so others can
some day teach it, well that seems to pose its own kind of problem,
doesn't it?

At least most other schools of philosophy think they are doing
something, think they are adding to the body of knowledge that
belongs to mankind. Popperians, for instance, think they are telling
scientists how to do their business. DRTsts think they are developing
new logical models which will help in certain fields, I suppose.
Logicians generally think theirs is a real field with a value that
goes beyond learning and playing the logic game. Certain
philosophers, like Searle, think they are guiding elements of the
research community down the right paths. Dennett at least steps into
the area of theoretical science when he endeavors to work with the
researchers in the AI field.

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