The Philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein: An Introduction.
Hans J. Schneider, University of Potsdam
It is an honor and a pleasure for me to give a philosophical lecture here for a general academic audience. I have chosen to introduce you to the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. (Picture no. 1: Wittgenstein) Looking back to the years of my own philosophical work it became clear to me that among all the influences of books I have read and people I have met the influence of his Philosophy was the strongest. Also, since not only the details, but even some of the main points of his work are not always easy to grasp and since (especially in the English speaking world) one still meets misunderstandings of this work, I hope it will be helpful for you to be offered an introductory presentation, prepared by someone who has the advantage of sharing his native tongue with Wittgenstein.
He was, however, not a citizen of Germany, but of Austria. He had lived in England for some years when the Second World War began, and he became a British citizen, doing civil services in a hospital for the suffering population in London. So nationality did not matter to him very much. But I should mention that most of his work he wrote in German, only some smaller pieces of it he wrote in English.
Let me tell you a few more facts about his life and his personality: He was born eleven years before the beginning of the 20th century, in 1889, as the youngest of eight children. His father Karl Wittgenstein was a self-made-man in the steel industry who, in his own youth, had run away from home and subsequently became one of the richest persons in Vienna. I think this career of their father contributed a lot to the self-understanding that his children developed when they grew up. It is the conviction that what becomes of you during the course of your life to a large extent depends on your own decisions and activities. One commentator gave this kind of conviction a more extreme sense when he formulated it as the maxim: Either you are a genius, or you kill yourself. This is a cruel and a dangerous guideline. And indeed, three of Ludwig’s brothers did take their own lives, and he himself seems to have been close to doing so more than once. Fortunately for us, however, with the early support of the famous British philosopher Bertrand Russell from Cambridge, Ludwig decided not to kill himself, but to try to be a genius instead. But certainly he never was an easy-going, light-hearted person; he made extremely strong demands on himself, and, in consequence, on others, which often caused considerable difficulties for the people around him. These demands were ethical and were also demands on his work. And it was the world of the mind, the world of learning, not of material success, in which he urgently longed to accomplish something.
The atmosphere of his childhood home in Vienna was dominated by the cultural activities made possible by the enormous wealth of his father, and the most important among those activities were in the field of music. (Pictures 2 and 3: Palais Wittgenstein Vienna, Alleegasse.) For example, the composers Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, and Gustav Mahler were guests in the Wittgenstein house, and private concerts were performed regularly. One of Ludwig’s brothers, Paul Wittgenstein, was a professional piano player; after he was injured in the First World War and came home with only one arm, he was determined to continue his career, and the composer Maurice Ravel composed for him a concerto for piano and orchestra, explicitly written for being performed with only the left hand. (1930)
Although Ludwig Wittgenstein, like his mother and his brother, showed a great musical sensibility, he also had strong technical interests that later, together with his general interest in the cultural issues of his time, led him to architecture. In the years 1926 to 28, at a time when he had thought that he had solved all philosophical problems, so that nothing substantial in this field would be left for him to do, he designed a house for his sister Margarethe. At first he worked as a kind of assistant to the architect Paul Engelmann, but from the beginning his name appears on the drawings as that of an architect, and more and more he seems to have taken complete control of the project. (Pictures 4 to 11; building con-designed by W., Vienna, Kundmanngasse. Dates: no. 6: 1975; no. 7: 1991.) It is a Bauhaus-type of building with a serene, minimalist atmosphere and no kind of decoration whatsoever. You can still see it in Vienna; it houses the cultural department of the Bulgarian embassy. It is telling for his character that at one point during the construction Wittgenstein is said to have insisted on changing the level of the floor of one room by just a few centimeters, in order to have the proportions right. Here again we can watch him following the maxim: The result of your work has to be absolutely perfect, or you better don’t get started.
So, academically, he set out with engineering, first in Linz in Austria, then in Berlin and Manchester where he was working in the field of aeronautics. He made his diploma in 1908. For an engineer it is natural to be interested in Mathematics, and Wittgenstein soon developed a special interest in the foundations of this field. This was the kind of entry he took into Philosophy, and one could also say that it was the ‘engineering’ side of Mathematics that fascinated him when he was young. So what are the ‘foundations’ of Mathematics, how does Philosophy get into the picture, and what is meant by the ‘engineering-aspect’ of Mathematics?
The first pair of questions is: What are the ‘foundations’ of Mathematics, and what has a discussion of them to do with Philosophy? Here one might as well ask: What is Philosophy? The part of Philosophy that is relevant here is called the ‘Theory of Knowledge’, and this I will now try to explain.
Some of you may be engineers or may be practicing a natural science, and if you do, you both know and use Mathematics. What you normally do not do, however, is to ask ‘what kind of entity is a number?’ You will, for example, be sure that there exists a prime number between five and nine (namely, seven), but probably you will not have a ready answer if someone asks you, what exactly is meant by ‘existence’ here. Do numbers exist in the same sense as mountains and rivers do? Do they exist at a certain place? And since you have this knowledge of the prime number seven, does this mean that you are also able to explain how you have gained it? Was it with help of your eyes, or ears, or another of your sense organs, - or do you think mathematicians possess a special kind of ‘extra sensory perception’? What other possibilities are there for us to gain knowledge of such ‘abstract’ things?
Questions of this kind constitute one type of what are called ‘philosophical questions’ (of another important type are questions about how we should live). About the latter ones I will have something to say later, but for now I will stick to the philosophical questions concerning mathematics and the sciences. I hope it is clear already from my examples, that they can be classified as belonging the ‘theory of knowledge’ or, to mention the technical term, to ‘Epistemology’. In modern Western Philosophy, this field has been the dominating one. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant famously gave it the form ‘What can I know?’ A special case of this is: What can I know about abstract objects like numbers?
But is this question really important? I do admit, that answering it does in no obvious way help to do correct calculations. So philosophical questions seem to be of no obvious practical use. Instead, one could say, they are concerned with what we presuppose when we do calculations. And this relation of presupposition gives sense to the metaphor I have mentioned, the metaphor of the ‘foundations’ of Mathematics. In this way of speaking a field of knowledge is compared to a building, and to look at the foundations of a field of knowledge (you might also say: to look in a philosophical way at this body of knowledge) is compared to looking whether the building is firmly connected to the ground so that it will not collapse when the people living in it move some of their furniture.
Now the people living in a house normally are not themselves experts in what it is to give to a building a solid foundation, and they do not have to possess this special kind of knowledge. But certainly, as far as real houses are concerned, somewhere such experts should exist; somebody should be able to make sound judgments about the solidity of the foundations of buildings. But what is true of buildings in the literal sense, is this also true for the Sciences and for the other academic fields of study? Some people have doubts here; they tend to think that the philosophical questions of the type mentioned (what are numbers, what does ‘existence’ mean in their case, etc.) are altogether idle, something for sick minds, for dreamers who avoid life instead of living it. And this indeed in some circles is still a popular picture of the philosopher. In pragmatically oriented cultures like that of the U.S., for example, many ‘people in the streets’ think in this way; about China, which has also a pragmatic view of life, I understand, I do not know. But as a philosopher I would like to insist (and I will explain to you) that at least in certain moments and contexts this kind of criticism directed against Philosophy is unjustified and indeed misguided and dangerous. We can see this when I now take up the third of my questions: In which sense can one speak of an ‘engineering-aspect’ of Mathematics, what does it have to do with the foundational philosophical questions just mentioned? The answers to these questions will at the same time show us some specifics about Wittgenstein’s way of entering Philosophy.
At this point I have to mention the name of the German Philosopher and Logician Gottlob Frege. (Picture no. 11: Frege) He was born in 1848, so he was a rather old person of 63 years when the 22 year-old Wittgenstein visited him in 1911. He had read Frege’s writings and deeply admired them. Frege, however, did not understand well the visions that Wittgenstein tried to communicate to him, and so Frege recommended that Wittgenstein should go to Cambridge to Bertrand Russell, who was a much younger man of only 39 at the time. Wittgenstein followed this advice.
Now what was Frege’s project that had greatly influenced the work of Russell as well as that of Wittgenstein? There is a negative and a positive side in the answer to this question. The negative side is that Frege was dissatisfied with the looseness and indeed the lack of clarity of the terminology used by the mathematicians of his time. He demonstrated, for example, that the word ‘function’ was used by his colleagues in a variety of incompatible senses, and (to mention a second example) he wrote a sarcastic review of a book that ran into hopeless contradictions in its attempt to define what a number is. In this second case, Frege especially insisted that it is a big mistake to think that numbers are psychological entities, existing in the mind of the individual mathematician. If this were so, Frege explained, ‘my number two’ (my inner object) would be different from ‘your number two’ (your inner object). We would never know each other’s mathematical objects first hand, and therefore could never know whether adding two plus two would in your and in my case lead to the same result; I could never know whether ‘your four’ is really equivalent to mine. So, in his critical work, Frege made great efforts in an attempt to sharpen the terminology of his field, and in doing so, to sharpen the ways of thinking.
I want to mention here that Frege’s opposition to treating philosophical questions as if they were psychological ones is something that Wittgenstein adopted for his own thinking, for example for his thinking about how we should live. He insisted that also the question of the ‘good life’ is no psychological question, it is not a question about our feelings.
But before I will return to this subject, I have to take a second look at Frege and his further, more ambitious goal, besides working for terminological clarity. This brings me to the positive side of his work and also to what I have called above the ‘engineering-aspect’ of Mathematics. You can probably guess that what is meant here is modern, axiomatic Mathematics, which in turn is what makes possible todays information technologies as they are used in computers, cell phones, etc. all over the world.
In the time before Frege, already Philosophers such as Leibniz (who lived 200 years earlier: 1646-1716) had speculated about the possibility to construct an artificial language that would turn thinking into a kind of mechanical calculation that could proceed in a rigorous, ‘automatic’ way, leaving no room for doubt. If we had a universal and truthful script for designating what we want to talk about (characteristica universalis), and a formal method to handle the complex expressions of this script, especially the relations they have to each other, when for example we draw conclusions (calculus ratiocinator), then we would be able to end our so far endless debates and just calculate in order to find out who is right. It is on the way to this goal that Frege made a substantial advance for which he is famous today. To be more precise: He was the first to formulate what is called an axiomatic system of propositional logic. And it was in his footsteps that Russell and his colleague Alfred North Whitehead wrote their monumental work ‘Principia Mathematica’ (1910-1913) which (besides Frege’s works) became the foundation stone of modern Logic and a whole new branch of Philosophy, called Analytical Philosophy. Anticipating what I will have to say later, I might mention here that Wittgenstein’s later work consisted to a great extent in showing the limits of such a view when it is applied to natural languages. These, he insists, are no axiomatic systems; a natural language is no calculus.
But let us first understand in what such a formal treatment of mathematical and logical matters consists and how it had led into philosophical problems. It is an ironic incident in the recent history of Philosophy, that it was a philosopher working in the same spirit as Frege, namely the already mentioned Bertrand Russell, who discovered (in 1901), that one can deduce a paradox in Frege’s system without transgressing any of its rules. (Picture no. 12: Russell.) But if this is possible (and Russell was right in his discovery) this means that one can deduce anything one likes, which in turn means that the system as it stands is absolutely worthless.
It is this context that forces us to look at the foundational philosophical questions mentioned above, and makes it urgent to find answers, because such a paradox in a logical system is like a fire on a building. The necessity to extinguish it (which here means: the need to understand the place and the nature of the mistake one has made, in order to be able to correct it) is undeniable, or the whole project will fail. And this is the kind of work to be done by Philosophy, in so far as it treats the foundations of a field. You might also say: it treats the basic concepts that are needed for the system, like ‘number’ or ‘class’. But if this is so and the domain in question, metaphorically speaking, is on fire, Philosophy can no longer be said to be an idle pastime for dreamers.
It is not necessary here to give you an introduction to modern Logic, but the following points must be mentioned in order to explain how Wittgenstein’s early and, subsequently, his later work has developed. As I have mentioned, he followed Frege’s advice and joined Russell in Cambridge. Both men regarded Frege’s work as of fundamental importance for understanding human thinking and for understanding the workings of the means we have to express or convey our thoughts, i.e. the workings of language (in a very broad sense of this term). Frege himself had been very clear that he was aware of some deep differences between his logical language or ‘concept script’ on the one hand, and natural languages on the other. But on the other hand he was convinced that certain basic relations that he meant to articulate with precision in his ‘concept script’ can only be discovered by looking at what we do in our natural languages when we argue with each other and give reasons for our convictions. There is no other place to look; when correct thinking takes place at all, not privately ‘in your head’, but in a way that can be communicated and can be agreed about as correct, it has to be in the medium of some language, imperfect as it might be from the logical point of view. So the relationship between our natural languages and the newly developed languages of Logic became a central concern. Is Logic the hidden core of all natural languages that in some sense is ‘behind’ or ‘at the bottom’ of (for example) English as well as Chinese? Is Frege’s system an ideal language?
Especially it was the ‘nature of the proposition’ (which roughly means: the constituents and the structure of the most elementary sentences that can be true or false) that became the central concern of the young Wittgenstein. As Russell told Wittgenstein’s sister Hermine in 1912 on a visit they paid him in England, he had great hopes that it would be her brother Ludwig who would take the next decisive steps in this area.
Wittgenstein was 29 when the First World War ended. He had been fighting on the Austrian side, and as soon as conditions allowed it, he sent to Russell a manuscript that later became his first book and was still later accepted as his doctoral dissertation in Cambridge. But this was with some hesitations, because it did not look like one, for example, it did not contain a single footnote. Wittgenstein had enormous difficulties finding a publisher, but he finally succeeded, and his book came out in 1921 under the title ‘Tractatus logico-philosophicus’ which means ‘Logical-Philosophical Treatise’. It has a very peculiar form, and also its content is unusual. (Picture no. 7: ZLP, Chinese edition 1927.)
To speak about the content first, one can say that it treats of everything; it is doing so, insofar as it discusses the possibilities and limits of what can be stated with the help of (any kind of) language at all. In this indirect way, also traditional philosophical questions like how to lead a good life, and even questions about mysticism find their way into the book. Wittgenstein expresses strong opinions concerning the limits of language. In his foreword he describes his work as an attempt to draw the limits of language from within, i.e. from the perspective of what can meaningfully be said, leaving the rest more or less open, because (obviously) it is impossible to speak from the side of what cannot be said. He does not only see an impossibility here, but, as he indicates with the choice of the motto for his&, ;nbs, p;book, he looked with contempt at what he regarded as futile attempts to express in language what cann, , ot be so expressed. We might think here of the language of certain music-critics who try to paraphrase what they take to be the meaning of a piece of music, and who and thereby produce unspeakable nonsense or (as one might say with a German word) philosophical Kitsch. But Wittgenstein is aware that he himself at points transgresses some boundaries and he is so consistent to advise the reader to regard certain of the sentences in his book as nonsensical.
This brings me to the peculiar form of his book: It is rather slim (my German edition of 1963 has 105 pages) and it consists of seven basic sentences, which are numbered 1 to 7. Except for the last one (“About what one cannot speak one has to remain in silence”), every sentence is followed by comments, sub-comments, etc. and the relations these have to each other are indicated by a system of decimals of variable length. The book is written in an apodictic tone; like a poet, its author refuses any lengthy explanations. This was much to Russell’s distress, who had volunteered to write an introduction to the English translation in order to make it more readable. Wittgenstein thought that for the intelligent reader the sentences that the author has pronounced are supposed to speak for themselves.
In his own foreword Wittgenstein declares his conviction that he has definitely solved what he there calls ‘the philosophical problems’. He also says that the questions they raise stem from a misunderstanding of our language. This means: As they are stated (as philosophical problems), they do not constitute meaningful questions and for this reason they also cannot be meaningfully answered. As an example for a question of this kind you may think of the so-called ‘mind-body-problem’: How can something like a decision you make (i.e. something mental) have a causal effect on your body, when you for example decide to get up from your working desk to get another coffee, and then indeed your legs move? Are there two fundamentally different realms of being that interact in a mysterious way? According to Wittgenstein, the very formulation of the alleged problem is misleading. A philosophical analysis would reveal that it falsely presupposes a mental entity that can have a causal effect on something material. What we have (so it will turn out) is a misunderstanding of our language.
Here we see that the ‘solution’ Wittgenstein claims to have articulated does not consist of (true) answers to philosophical problems. But in what respect then should his book be of interest? He gives his own answer when he closes his foreword with the remark that his book would show, how little has been accomplished by in this way ‘solving’ (or one could say: getting rid of) what he had called ‘the philosophical problems’. As a paraphrase of this remark one could say: Our really important questions concerning how we should live, do not constitute a ‘problem’ in the sense in which Wittgenstein uses the term. So the questions that we have about our lives will stay with us, even if we have understood his book and even if we see that the ‘problems of philosophy’ have disappeared. Or, as Wittgenstein himself formulates (with a surprising shift in posing the question, a shift from Philosophy to Science): “We feel that even when all possible questions of science have found an answer, the problems of our lives have not even been touched. True: Then no question will remain; and exactly this is the answer.” (6.52) So the answer is that we see (1) that the ‘problems of our lives’ will not be solved by answering the ‘question of science’, and (2) that a correct understanding of language reveals that there is no extra domain of ‘problems of philosophy’ to which we could hope to find answers one day, because no such problems can be formulated in an intelligible way, although they still exist on the practical level. I think that we can agree to the first point, but not to the second: Would there really be nothing left for a rational philosophical discussion, if we had answered all scientific questions?
It is important to note here that Wittgenstein’s vision of language in this first book is extremely limited. This is best seen in his surprising but quite explicit remark that the totality of meaningful sentences is the totality of the sentences articulated by the natural sciences. (TLP 4.11) I think that our immediate response to this claim should be: This cannot be true without qualifications. How could Wittgenstein express such a view? Without going into the details, a few points can be mentioned that make his claim a little less bewildering. For one thing, we have to restrict it to descriptive sentences, and to take note that Wittgenstein must have thought that ultimately all true descriptions will belong to one or another of the sciences. For example, the early Wittgenstein seems to have though that some day there would be a scientific way of treating ‘psychological entities’ like ‘states of mind’, etc., so at this time he seems to have thought that large portions of what we say about other people could be transformed one day into sentences of Psychology.
But I have mentioned already that he did not take the abstract entities of mathematics to be psychological entities, and also that he insisted that, what we try to convey in language when we speak about Ethics and how we should live, we are also not speaking about ‘states of mind’ in the psychological sense. So in spite of his confidence in the progress of science at the time, in his first book as well as in his ‘Lecture on Ethics’ of 1929 he held that there are important areas of life that are inaccessible for language. Already in the Tractatus he had pronounced: “Sentences cannot express anything higher.” (TLP 6.42) But what about fields like History or Social Studies, did he think that one day the questions belonging to these domains could be treated with the methods of Natural Science?
We do not know what Wittgenstein thought about these matters in his early days. We know more about Frege’s ideas about a realm of abstract entities, like numbers, existing in an extra non-material but still real region of objects, the members of which are somehow ‘mirrored’ in our sentences about them. Numbers have not been created by mankind, they have been discovered, Frege insisted. Both Frege and Wittgenstein agreed that numbers are not ‘psychological entities’, but how could they be characterized positively? What does it help to call them ‘logical entities’?
Also another ‘logical entity’, the so-called ‘proposition’ as the meaning of a sentence, is a topic much discussed by Russell and Wittgenstein when they collaborated in Cambridge. The proposition expressed by a simple sentence like ‘the cat is on the mat’ obviously something to do with what I see with my eyes, i.e. with entities which philosophers at the time called ‘sense data’. But the proposition does not seem to be the same as a collection of sense impressions (it is nothing psychological), nor is it just a complex material object of cat-and-mat, perceived as a unity of parts arranged in a particular spatial order. As Wittgenstein later observed such a view would be unable to account for negative sentences like ‘the cat is not on the mat’.
Now in order to understand what kinds of objects propositions are, we might in a first step turn to single words and ask the simpler question: What is the meaning of a word, or: How can we understand that our words have meaning? For we use words to express propositions. It was clear to Wittgenstein that meanings of words are no ‘psychological entities’, but how could a convincing alternative answer look? It was a thorough and completely new treatment of this question that has led Wittgenstein to his later Philosophy, mainly expressed in the second of the two books that he himself had prepared for publication. It has the title ‘Philosophical Investigations’ and was published in 1953, two years after he had died from cancer. Let me now explain to you the basic ideas of this book of which I can say that for me they still constitute important insights.
The best entry to the main ideas worked out in this second book might be the following remark of Wittgenstein in which he comments on one of the topics that I have discussed already, namely on Frege and the problem of word meanings. He says: “For Frege, the alternative was this: Either (when we speak of mathematical objects; HJS) these objects are the marks of ink on the paper, or these ink-marks are signs of something, and what they are standing for is their meaning. That this alternative is not correct can be seen when we look at the game of chess. Here the objects of our activity are not the wooden pieces, and still they are not standing proxy for anything, they have no reference in Frege’s sense. So there is a third possibility, the signs can have a use like in a game.”
Here we have much of Wittgenstein’s later Philosophy in a nutshell: As a starting point one can take the question: What are the meanings of words and sentences? Like Frege he takes it as obvious that the meaning of a numeral like ‘three’ or ‘///’ are not the written marks themselves, as written on the blackboard or on a piece of paper. The mathematician is not talking about material remains of writing, consisting of ink or chalk; the material things on paper are not the numbers, but (as we say) they ‘represent them’. Now Frege had concluded from this that there must be a realm of abstract entities, to which things like numbers (or propositions, or classes, etc.) belong, because we do not want to say that the mathematician is talking ‘about nothing’.
Wittgenstein’s point now is that this alternative is not exhaustive. There is a third possibility. And to make this plausible he is pointing to the case of the game of chess. We can say that a person who knows how to play chess knows the meaning of each of the chess figures. But, as Wittgenstein correctly observes, in the given case these meanings are not entities that the figures would stand for. To know their meanings is to know how to play chess, nothing more and nothing less.
Much of what he is doing in the Philosophical Investigations is to work out this analogy between language and the game of chess and discuss what it means for the problems of Philosophy. Accordingly, the basic advice for clarifying the meaning of a word is: Ask yourself how this word is used. Especially, do not take it for granted that every meaningful word must ‘stand for something’; you should not presuppose that for a word to have meaning it is necessary that there should be an object it is standing for. When we take the word ‘decision’ as an example again, this means that we should look at sentences like ‘he decided to finally tell him the truth’, or ‘he decided to get one more coffee’, and see how these sentences are in fact used in contexts in which we readily understand them. Negatively speaking, also in this case we should not think too easily that there must be something somewhere (possibly a brain-event inside the body of the person we are talking about) that a phrase like ‘his decision to get up for a coffee’ refers to. That this particular idea (that decisions are brain states) must even be false can be seen from the fact that most of us at many times know their decisions quite well and can describe and comment on them, but only very few people can answer the question, what happened in their brains when they formed the decision. So instead of saying ‘mental entities do not exist’ or ‘mental entities are really physical entities in the brain’ one should, in a first step, give up entity-talk altogether. Formulated as a slogan, the later Wittgenstein’s advice is: Do not look for meaning-entities (like abstract numbers, or brain events), but look, how the words that pose the problems you are working on, are used.
To give you an idea of some of the consequences and the importance of this drastic change in Wittgenstein’s philosophical perspective, let me mention two things: Firstly, his examples and his explicit discussions show that he has abandoned his restrictive idea that all legitimate uses of language would function as descriptions. I had mentioned that in the Tractatus he had claimed that the totality of meaningful sentences would be the totality of the sentences of natural science. Now the new analogy between language and the game of chess leads him to speak about ‘language games’, i.e. social activities for a plurality of participants, regulated by rules and normally involving more than just speech, for example, the building of a house, in the process of which stones are transported, etc. Furthermore, he acknowledges that there are many, many different kinds of these activities he calls language games. Among others he lists giving orders, speculating about an event, making up a story, making a joke, and “cursing, greeting, praying”. (PI 23) So our feeling that a picture of language cannot be right that excludes fields like History or Social Studies that prominently speak of rule-governed social behavior, turns out to be justified after all, it is not contradicted by Wittgenstein’s later work. And we can furthermore note that these rules, in his later way of thinking, are not of the strict character of those of a logical calculus. We use them creatively in metaphors and other projections, in unpredictable ways. Societies change, History moves.
My second point in characterizing this later work is to make you see that Wittgenstein’s turn to the language games (in contradistinction to his rather autistic outlook in his early work) puts the social side of our intellectual lives right into the center. He now discusses topics like: What are the defining rules for the particular language games under consideration; who are the players of the language game, do they have the possibility to explicitly formulate them, can they change them, will they, at times, even have the duty to change them? In other words, now a great number of social aspects of language, aspects that necessarily have to be mentioned when we use the analogy of games, come into view. Wittgenstein’s later Philosophy does not only allow as meaningful the academic activities of the kind we classify as ‘Social Studies’, but his new approach forces him (and the philosophers who wish to continue his work) to think about how we adequately understand ourselves as social beings, as beings engaging in rule-governed activities. Of these language is only one, but no doubt it is the most important of the activities, because it is the means to constitute, to regulate and (if necessary) to improve all the others.
It was the British philosopher Peter Winch who was the first to stress these normative aspects of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy. (Picture no. 14: Winch) Against the tendency of his time to think of Social Studies as something that should in its developed stage come as close as possible to the methods and procedures of the natural sciences, he stresses (rightly, I think) the self-reflective character of social thought and, consequently, its particular close relation to Philosophy. Put simply: We as the subjects of our language- and other social games are ourselves responsible for regulating them in such a way that they make sense for us, individually and in the broader historical and social context.
This brings me back to the other great area of traditional philosophical questions, besides the theory of knowledge: How should we live, what is a good life? Immanuel Kant had characterized this domain by his question ‘What should I do?’ Here we can just note that while in his early work Wittgenstein had restricted the realm of the meaningful to the realm of what can be said in science, leaving out, for example, Ethics and Religion as areas that cannot really be reached and explored by language, in his later work there is no such restriction, although he himself unfortunately did not take up these themes at any length.
Looking at the recent history of China in the periods after the Second World War it seems to me of particular interest that the move Wittgenstein had made from his early to his later Philosophy can be interpreted as a move into a direction that could be called a form of Materialism, as is had once been envisaged by Karl Marx. I might mention in passing that in the mid-thirties Wittgenstein (like Bertrand Russell before him) had taken a trip to Russia in order to see whether the society created by the October Revolution would appeal to him. Both men were disappointed. But still this move to the ‘material conditions’ for thinking and speaking is not unlike what Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (and later Jürgen Habermas) had attempted in what they called the construction of a ‘critical’ social theory. This critical theory claims that even the Theory of Knowledge has to take into account the social aspects of the means with the help of which science is practiced. There are many such means, like clocks and other laboratory equipment, but language no doubt is the most important of them, and we have just seen how also Wittgenstein arrived at the conclusion that a convincing account of the meaning-side of language can only be given in terms of its social dimension. This resonates with the claim of the authors of the mentioned Neo-Marxian Theory that we have to reflect on the way in which our activities are embedded in the social context if we want to be able to uphold the critical potential of academic studies of all kinds. Without such a critical understanding, the scope of knowledge produced will be restricted to the domain of technical skills. Such skills are useful for a while to earn money, but they stop to be of any help as soon as we need a broader understanding of ourselves, and what we are heading for, as individuals as well as societies. The question how we want to live, the question of what is a good life, or, related to Wittgenstein’s thought about language, the question what we should reasonably mean when we use the word like ‘progress’, would be lost. In the universities we should try to recover and keep alive these questions. If we do not, the bad kind (you might want to say: the western kind) of materialism will rule all over the world, the kind in which material progress (getting rich) has become the main or even the only orientation. But this, I think, would mean: heading for disaster. I hope to have shown that in order to avoid this you need Philosophy.