W is for Wittgenstein

My academic alphabet would never be complete without a post directly about Wittgenstein, who has already featured a number of times. (You can view a full list of my posts tagged ‘Wittgenstein’ – they include posts on key terms such as grammar, language-games, and use.) Much has already been written about Wittgenstein, of course; for a readable but comprehensive biography, I recommend Ray Monk’s book, and for a more technical introduction online, try the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In this blog post, I am not going to try and tell Wittgenstein’s whole story or sum up his philosophy – the latter in particular may be impossible anyway. Instead, I want to pull out three facts about his life which I find relevant to understanding his philosophical method.

Doing other things as well

Wittgenstein was never just a philosopher. He did spend a good deal of time working on philosophy, but along the way he tried his hand at all sorts of other activities: engineering, architecture, military service, school teaching, lab work, reading detective novels, and photography, for example. He was not necessarily good at any of these (his school teaching career did not go well at all), but all might be seen as feeding, in one way or another, into his philosophical work. Even if they did not end up doing so, the potential was there. As a matter of practicality, of course, all philosophers need to do things other than philosophy, but the lesson I take from Wittgenstein is that these activities can feed into, rather than detract from, the life of thought, if we allow everything we do to interact with our philosophy.

Photographs of family resemblances

Wittgenstein was interested in ‘family resemblances’ as a philosophical concept – he uses it to describe the way we come to understand and use words which don’t have a single stable definition, but where we can recognise examples because they have some points in common with other examples in the category. Things like ‘games’ are family resemblance concepts, for example. This idea seems to be not just an abstract one, although it works at that level, but also related to photographs he took in which members of his family are overlaid in multiple exposures. This connection of the philosophical ‘picture’ to an actual picture both helps me to grasp the concept and helps to ground the idea in the way the world is.

Changing his mind

Relatively early in life, he thought that he had solved all the problems in philosophy, and walked away from it. Later, though, he changed his mind, rejected much of what he had written before (opinions vary on how much, ranging from ‘all of it was wrong’ to ‘it had one small but key flaw’), and began to build another way to approach philosophical problems. There are things in life about which we don’t, I think, change our minds because of philosophical arguments – if you feel the presence of God, you are unlikely to be convinced that there is no God by a syllogism – but there are also lots of cases where it’s appropriate to change our minds. I happen to think that Wittgenstein got much more of it right on his second attempt, but even so, I think the decision to declare that he needed to go back and try again was an admirable one.


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