Wittgenstein: A Reluctant Philosophical Achiever

Keith Parker


What do we mean by reluctant and does this apply to Wittgenstein’s work in philosophy? I used the word in my title because it struck me that Wittgenstein achieved much in philosophy despite himself. Only later did I see that chapter 20 of Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein is called `The Reluctant Professor` and that his overall title is `Wittgenstein, The Duty Of Genius`, a title that implies a sense of reluctance, he did it not out of a sense of love but because it was his duty?


Monk alludes to Wittgenstein’s reluctance when he records that his first encounter with philosophy was at the age of eight or nine when he was struck by the question why should one tell the truth if it is to one’s advantage to tell a lie?” Monk notes,” In one respect the episode is characteristic of his entire life. Unlike say Bertrand Russell, who turned to philosophy with hope of finding certainty where previously he had felt only doubt, Wittgenstein was drawn to it by a compulsive tendency to be struck by such questions. Philosophy one might say, came to him, not he to philosophy. Its dilemmas were experienced by him as unwelcome intrusions, enigmas, which forced themselves upon him and held him captive, unable to get on with everyday life until he could dispel them with a satisfactory solution.” (1)


He never did dispel them and speaks of philosophy as a never ending task. Perhaps it was knowing this that gave his life’s work an air of reluctance.


Perhaps he was reluctant in the sense of being unwilling because he felt he lacked the will, the moral strength, to do philosophy properly and his failure would reveal a flaw in his character? There is plenty of evidence to reveal the  suicidal tendencies in Wittgenstein’s character. When Russell approved of a manuscript Wittgenstein had written in 1912 Wittgenstein embarked on a career in philosophy, but he said he felt saved. He told David Pinsent later that this event had ended,” nine years of loneliness and suffering during which he had continually thought of suicide.” Suicidal thoughts, melancholy, feelings of lack of self worth, haunted him all his life. In 1936 he even wrote a personal confession which he insisted on reading to selected friends. One, Rowland Hutt, had to listen to it in a crowded Lyons café while Wittgenstein recited his sins in a loud clear voice(2) Another exasperated friend subject to the same experience shouted out,” What is it? You want to be perfect?” “Of course I want to be perfect “Wittgenstein thundered in reply` (3) For Wittgenstein life itself was a moral quest to achieve a state decency which for him meant overcoming pride and vanity. Failure in philosophy would be a mark of moral failure. But given the programme he set for himself what could he do but have a sense of failure. He once described his daily life in this way,” My day passes between logic, whistling, going for walks and being depressed.” (4)


Another aspect of his reluctance was a fear that he would not be understood. When once asked by Gilbert Ryle`s cousin Naomi Wilkinson how many people understood his philosophy he replied,” Two – and one of them is Gilbert Ryle.”(5) He said famously in the preface to the Philosophical Investigations the following of his remarks,” I make them public with doubtful feelings. It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another- but of course it is not likely.” (6)


Linked to all of this was his doubt about philosophy as a worthwhile adult activity. He once said that that only thing worse that being a teacher of philosophy was to be a journalist.(7)He did after all spend parts of his life as, a schoolteacher, an engineering student, a soldier, a gardener, a laboratory assistant, an architect, a sculptor, a writer of spelling dictionaries, he watched westerns and musicals  and read detective stories to block out philosophy. He seriously contemplated emigrating to Russia to be become a farm labourer and he advised his students, sometimes with success,to follow other careers than being philosophers. He suspected that philosophy was a worthless form of life which may be why, after seriously considering a career in psychiatry or medicine, he developed a conception of philosophy that was psychiatric or medical, a form of therapy to cure us of the illness of philosophical analysis.


Reluctance may him hesitate constantly over the publication of his work he never felt satisfied he had expressed himself clearly enough. He was reluctant to see other points of view so great was the emotional commitment he put into his work and this led him to be a serial quarreller with many of his friends if he suspected then had misunderstood him. Given all of this how and why can we say that Wittgenstein was at the same time an achiever?


To understand the scale of Wittgenstein’s achievement we need to consider the philosophical landscape he found himself in. With a lot of help from P.S.M. Hacker, Robert J Fogelin, John Searle and Anthony Grayling it looked something like this.(8)


The external world, the world of physical objects states, events, processes in space, a public world, is accessible to all by perception.


The presumptive role or meaning of words is to stand for and refer to things either objects in the world or some introspective process in the mind.


There exists the possibility that there was a basic or ideal language made up of atomic parts the understanding or analysis of which would allow us to reveal the underlying structure of reality.


In contrast with the external world the inner world is a world on sense impressions, of imagination, sensations, feelings, moods, inclinations, wishes and decisions.


It is a subjective world which contains mental objects, eg pains, mental images, sense impressions states such as joy or sorrow, events eg, a thought, a pain, a sudden recollection and processes such as thinking and calculating.


The inner world has a mysterious quality but one can stand in relation to mental objects. Thus the proposition, “X has a car” that describes a situation in the physical world is the same as “X has a pain” or thought in the inner world.


All items in the inner world are owned by a subject whose inner world it is. The items are private, experiences are inalienable private property.


By contrast with the external world where our perceptions are always open to constant epistemological doubt the experiences of the inner world are certain. I cannot think I have a pain or a thought and be wrong. My perception of the inner world is via introspection, consciousness or awareness.


Certain consequences flow from this. I can give reports of this inner perception to others eg I want this, I have a pain. Such reports on private subjective experience are given independently of ones behaviour. The inner is epistemically independent of outer bodily behaviour. I do not wait to see what I say before I know what I think.


Since the inner is private then the inner of others is hidden and can only be inferred from behaviour. This outer husk of behaviour can mislead or lie to us. The connection between behaviour and the inner of others is non logical and non inductive. The only way to connect them is by analogy with my own case or hypothetical inference to the best explanation. As a result one cannot have genuine knowledge of the inner life of others in the same way as ones own inner life.



Wittgenstein came to feel that this philosophical landscape was incorrect or distorted in almost every respect. He thus rejected the tradition of philosophy certainly as it had developed from Descartes onwards and in some cases from more ancient times. As John Searle put it,” He is militating against a tradition that goes back as far as Plato and Aristotle. He is fighting first, against his earlier theory that words get their meanings by standing for objects, and secondly, he is fighting against an even older tradition that says words get their meanings by being associated with ideas in the mind. And third, he is also fighting a tradition according to which in order for a word to have a meaning, there must be some essence which that word expresses.” (9)


Wittgenstein rejected the referential concept of language, which he termed the Augustinian picture of language. He defined it as “Every word has a meaning. The meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands.” (10) This concept was too narrow. He constructed a whole series of language games to show that describing is only one function of the use words. As Hans-Johann Glock points out,” The Augustinian picture runs counter to the multiplicity of language games. In addition to describing there are not just questions and commands but countless other kinds eg telling jokes, thinking, cursing, greeting, praying. Nor is describing the highest common factor of these various linguistic activities.” (11)


This being so we are mistaken if we think we should search for some hidden essence in language. Instead we should describe the use of words in the language games which lie open to view. As Grayling points out,” What lies open to view is the fact that language is not one uniform thing but a host of different activities. We use language to describe, report, inform, affirm, deny, speculate, give orders, ask questions, tell stories, playact, sing, guess riddles, make jokes, solve problems, translate, request, think, greet, curse, play, warn, reminisce, express emotions and much else besides. All these different activities Wittgenstein calls language games.” (12)


Wittgenstein is emphatic that naming is not the basis of meaning and that naming itself is not just a matter of ostensively linking sounds to objects but can only be understood in the context of a type of linguistic activity The attempt to reduce the whole of language use to this naming paradigm, word linked to object is the fundamental source of errors that traditional philosophy is built on. For Wittgenstein the meaning of a word was the sum of its possible uses in complex variety of language games.


The implications of this are extensive. The idea of an ideal common atomic language hidden form view and waiting to be uncovered is a myth. Descriptions of the languages games that we use are all that we have.


Games are rule bound activities. The rules are human social constructs. Games do not need transcendental justification. There is no Archimedean point, that philosophy can provide, form which one could appraise the relationship between language and reality. The language games are all we have.


The implications of seeing the meaning of words in the context of language games are particularly profound when applied to the notion of the inner, the mental and mental objects. If language means anything then it must be to a certain extent governed by criteria or rules. Rules can be open ended, to a certain extent open to interpretation and to a certain extent contradictory but are always social practices. Social practices where we are trained in the criteria of the rules. As a result we can deny the possibility of a Private Language. This is a language where I name my own private sensations.


We have sensations and thoughts but these are not tied to mental objects that we have named internally. Rather our manifestation of the inner is tied to the public social phenomena of language at every point. As Wittgenstein says, “An inner process stands in need of outward criteria.”

One result of this is that the inner of others is not hidden from us nor do we have to rely on analogy or behaviourism. When someone groans and says he is in pain we have direct access to that experience. The sufferer does not know he has a pain. He is in pain and knowledge and ownership don’t come into it. We know he is in pain because as Hacker points out, “The verbal expression of pain is grafted on to natural expressive behaviour in circumstances of injury.” (13)


Wittgenstein pointed out that to say “I know I have a pain “ is nonsense. You have pain but you could never know you have a pain as if it some sort of mental object you own and can perceive and label and then hold up for consideration. To know something only makes sense if it makes sense to deny it. An ascription of knowledge is supposed to be an empirical proposition which is informative in so far as it excludes an alternative. I know I am in pain can be a claim to know something only if I know I am not in pain is intelligible. It is not. (14)


If you have a pain, or thought, you can say so. This is not a perceptual ability it does not depend on observing mental objects, states and events. Hacker points out that when I am describing my state of mind I am doing something very different from describing the state of my room. Expressions of pain, belief, desire are not descriptions of objects events on a private stage or a peep show, (15)


As a result Wittgenstein thought that the role of philosophy in the future should be to get inside the language games we use and to eliminate the puzzles and mental cramps that arise when we try and fix an essence or use a word out of context of its language game. For instance when we try to apply words with meaning from science language games to ethical aesthetic or religious language games.


In summary Wittgenstein’s achievements lie in the fields of the philosophy of language, where he showed how words get meaning. In the philosophy of mind where he showed the impossibility of private inner mental objects and thus dismantled the mind body hypothesis and all its modern counterparts and with it the problem of scepticism about other minds. This in turn had huge implications for the philosophy of epistemology.


All in all he made philosophy a more human orientated project. Words for Wittgenstein were deeds, language was a multifaceted activity carried out against a huge backdrop of biological and cultural capacities. Ironically for such an argumentative and socially maladroit individual his ultimate objective, although he would have rejected he had an objective, was to urge a greater tolerance and sympathy of humans and humanness in all their manifestations.


Keith Parker Dec 2005




1)      Ray Monk, `Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Duty of Genius` P3

2)      Monk P 368

3)      Monk P 369

4)      Monk P 96

5)      Monk P 436

6)      Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations Preface.

7)      Monk P 323

8)      P.M.S. Hacker, Wittgenstein. Robert J Fogelin, `Wittgenstein’s critique of philosophy`, In The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein. Editors Hans Sluga, David G Stern. John Searle, Wittgenstein, in The Great Philosophers Editor Bryan Magee. A.C. Grayling, Wittgenstein. Hans-Johann Glock, A Wittgenstein Dictionary.

9)      Searle P 328

10)  Wittgenstein PI Pt 1

11)  Glock P 42

12)  Grayling P 83

13)  Hacker P36

14)  Hacker Pp 28/29

15)  Hacker P34