The Magazine

Fighting for Philosophy

When Ludwig met Karl.

Apr 15, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 30 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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Compared with all this, Wittgenstein, in stark contrast, is enigmatic. The "Tractatus" claims to solve some of the deepest problems of philosophy by precisely delimiting what can be meaningfully said--and therefore, in Wittgenstein's view, what can be thought. The meaning of a proposition is revealed by analyzing it into an ultimate logical form that provides a picture--notoriously elusive word--of a possible state of the world. Wittgenstein offers no concrete examples of such logical analyses, but argues that they must nonetheless exist. His brief "logical poem" ends mystically: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent." Some important things, such as morality, cannot be meaningfully talked about, though they can be shown--for example, by moral behavior. The "Tractatus," straining the limits of language, finally declares itself to be largely nonsense: It is a ladder that, once climbed, can be discarded.

The "Tractatus" was striking, original, and eventually famous. Yet Wittgenstein, when he returned to philosophy, devoted himself to an equally original and even more influential project that undermined it. His "Philosophical Investigations" rejects the central proposal of the "Tractatus," a universal logical analysis of language. Language, as various as life, does more than make assertions. We joke, request, command, pray, etc. The sense of particular utterances depends on the part they play in some practice such as joking or praying--but it is a fundamental error to suppose that these practices have any common essence, logical or otherwise. They share nothing but a "family resemblance." What we call a philosophical problem is only a symptom of a muddled search for such illusory essences. The philosopher's task is to make philosophical problems disappear: "to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle." The "Investigations" offers not a doctrine but practice at climbing out of the bottle.

So what was at stake in Wittgenstein and Popper's long-ago quarrel? Bragging rights, of course, and temperamental and professional antipathies. But also the fundamental nature of philosophy. Can it address our deepest perplexities? Can it, as Popper believed, contribute to human progress? Or is it only a tragic compulsion? The word "philosophy" is not currently in tip-top shape: People can speak without irony of "philosophies" of web-page design; bookstores don't always feel a need to distinguish philosophy from self-help or the occult. "Wittgenstein's Poker" deserves a large audience and, with luck, may awaken some general readers to the excitement of the real thing, of large questions pursued with reason and passion.

David Guaspari is a mathematician and computer scientist in Ithaca, New York.