Wittgenstein- a Very Short Intro

Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction,
by A. C. Grayling

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  1. Just finished reading this book, “Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction,” by AC Grayling.

    Although Wittgenstein is considered by many to be one of the most important philosophers ever, or at least of the 20th century, Grayling does provide some thoughtfully critical comments at the end of the book that serve to temper the adulation which he says sometimes settles in among Wittgensteinians, whom he characterized as disciples of Wittgenstein.

    As Grayling notes, “A. J. Kenny describes Wittgenstein as ‘the most significant thinker of the [twentieth] century’. G. H. von Wright considers him to be ‘one of the greatest and most influential philosophers of our time’. An opponent of Wittgenstein’s views, J. N. Findlay, characterizes him as a thinker of ‘immense consequence and originality … profound … brilliant” (p. 126).

    Still, Grayling is at least right that much of Wittgenstein’s later, most important and relevant philosophy can tend to be vague and metaphorical. “This of course is deliberate,” Grayling goes on to say: “Wittgenstein’s method was to avoid systematic theorizing … to escape the pitfalls [in his largely repudiated early philosophy], exemplified by the Tractatus [his first published work], of erecting a rigidly monolithic theory of language and thought which succeeds only in falsifying the issues or at best oversimplifying them” (p. 111).

    It makes me wonder if, had he lived to do it, Wittgenstein might have produced an even more refined, less vaguely presented work than his later work, but also less rigidly oversimplified than his early work.

    As Grayling accurately puts it, “It is too soon to judge whether Wittgenstein ranks among those major figures, for example Aristotle, Locke, Kant, whose place in the history of philosophy is assured because of the value attached to their work by later generations. The reason is the obvious one that it is difficult to make accurate historical judgements about recent and living philosophers” (p.127). Many philosophers and scientists, of course, who completely changed their fields were not fully appreciated at and around the time they lived.

    In a sentence, the gist of Wittgenstein’s later work is that the goal of philosophy is to be like a therapy, to show us how language is sometimes used in misleading ways that lead to seemingly insolvable or confusing problems in epistemology or metaphysics.

    He argued that such philosophical problems will vanish when the workings of our language are properly understood. “What is your aim in philosophy?” he rhetorically asks … “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” (Philosophical Investigations). To properly understand our language, he argues, requires understanding the difference between what he calls ‘surface grammar’ and ‘depth grammar’. By ‘grammar’ he does not mean what we learn in elementary school, but rather he means the logic of a linguistic activity.

    In fact, this desire to elucidate, to clarify, to resolve what seem to be metaphysical problems, is one of several stable currents from his early through his later philosophy. He didn’t repudiate every last bit of the early work. It’s just that in his early philosophy, as Grayling puts it, he “wholly neglects the great variety of language upon which Wittgenstein, in his later philosophy, insists” (p. 59). (see also, reference to this point in the posts on Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters).

    Grayling describes an example of the way surface grammar can be mistaken for depth grammar:

    “The problem in question concerns the fact that ordinary language is often philosophically misleading – which is to say, is often misleading as to what we can legitimately think about the world. The problem can be demonstrated in the following way. Consider the two propositions (1) ‘the table is brown’ and (2) ‘the lateness of his arrival was annoying’. The traditional theory of the structure of propositions treats them as having two components, namely a subject (‘the table’, ‘the lateness of his arrival’) and a predicate (‘is brown’, ‘was annoying’). The subject term refers to something, and the predicate says of that something that it has a certain property or quality. So in (1) the property of brownness is asserted of a given table; in (2) the property of annoyingness is asserted of the lateness of someone’s arrival. Now this way of thinking about the structure of propositions, and in particular about the work done by their different parts, leads straight to a difficulty, which a contrast between (1) and (2) brings out. Proposition (1) appears to be unproblematic, because there are indeed tables in the world for the subject term to denote, and we can assert of any suitable one of them that it is brown, which is what we use the predicate term to say. But if we apply the same analysis to (2) then, on the face of it, we seem to be saying that there are latenesses in the world, and this should give us pause, for although people and things can indeed arrive or be late, we clearly do not think the world contains things called ‘latenesses’, at the very least in the same sense as we take it to contain tables. The point therefore is that the surface forms of sentences in ordinary language can mask important differences between what is really being said, and therefore thought, in different cases; and this can, and often does, lead to philosophical problems and misunderstandings” (p. 21-22)

    Wittgenstein’s later philosophy represents a break from a view that has been dominant in philosophy since Descartes. As Grayling puts it, “This view accords to subjective experience a peculiar primacy and importance” (p. 103). Since Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” it has been our own sensory experience which is understood to provide the basis for beliefs about the existence of external things, including other minds.

    For Descartes, Grayling explains, “first-person knowledge of psychological states is wholly unproblematic, whereas third-person knowledge of them is quite otherwise … In attacking this Cartesian thesis, Wittgenstein inverts the order of difficulty: it is not the question of third-person ascriptions of psychological states which is problematic, he says, for such ascriptions work on the relatively straightforward basis of public criteria for the use of psychological terms, as described above in connection with ‘pain’. Rather, what needs investigation is the first-person case, for it is here, Wittgenstein says, that a fundamental mistake is being made by Descartes and others in the philosophical tradition; namely, that first-person ascriptions of psychological states (‘I have a pain’, ‘I expect that …’, ‘I hope that …’, ‘I intend to … ‘) are reports or descriptions of essentially private inner goings on” (p. 104).

    According to Wittgenstein, these locutions are not reports of inner states, but are part of those states. It makes no sense, Wittgenstein would say, to doubt that “I am” or that, as in the slightly less famous case of GE Moore’s “Proof of an External World,” that I have two hands (the proof being to display them), because claiming to have knowledge in these cases doesn’t make sense, because we can know only those things that it makes sense to doubt, since, as Grayling puts it, “in all but rare and unfortunate circumstances the question whether one has hands simply does not and cannot sensibly arise [and] the assertion ‘I know that I have hands’ therefore involves a misuse of ‘know’” (p. 107).

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