Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved March 01, 2021, from

18. Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy

In two central respects Wittgenstein stands squarely within the main historical tradition of philosophy, first in the nature of the issues which excited and intrigued him intellectually - meaning, the self, consciousness, necessity - and second (going back to the roots of the tradition) in his being a ‘lover of wisdom’, that is, one who is seriously concerned about having a right stance to the world both intellectually and practically and who is committed to the use of the intellect (among other things) in helping to achieve this.

But he differs from many philosophers in his conviction that a great number of traditional philosophical problems are the result of some deep kind of muddle, and in his belief that the answers given and the way they are debated hinder rather than help us in achieving wisdom. This conviction gripped him from very early on and philosophical thought therefore presented itself to him as a tormentingly difficult struggle to be honest and to free himself from misleading preconceptions.

So the word ‘philosophy’ has, in all his writings, two uses. On one it describes a body of confused utterances and arguments, arising largely from misunderstanding of the workings of language, and on the other it describes an activity of helping people to get free of the muddles. Another important continuity is his insistence that there cannot be philosophical theories and that the helpful activity of philosophy ought only to consist of making uncontentious statements, of describing and assembling reminders. In the context of the picture theory of meaning, this is comprehensible (see §7). But it is less clear that it is required by the later view.

In part Wittgenstein is here stressing that we cannot have the kind of explanation of our concepts which the Tractatus picture seemed to promise. Our form of life cannot be grounded but only described and lived. In part he is questioning the impulse to look for quasi-scientific theories of the nature of philosophically puzzling phenomena. But these two interrelated points do not obviously add up to a complete embargo on anything which could be called ‘philosophical theory’. It is in the spirit of the later philosophy to point out that there are many different kinds of things which can be called ‘theories’. Everyone engaged in reflection on the topics Wittgenstein considers (including Wittgenstein himself) finds it natural to articulate in words the states they arrive at and to engage with these words and those of others in the mode of further comment and assessment.

We become aware here, and at many other places, of the open-ended and unfinished nature of Wittgenstein’s reflections. His writings have aroused great devotion because of the honesty and depth which many find in them. But it is important not to treat them with superstitious reverence. Rather they should be read in the spirit in which he intended, namely as an invitation to explore with as much integrity as possible one’s own perplexities and what would resolve them.

Citing this article:
Heal, Jane. Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy. Wittgenstein, Ludwig Josef Johann (1889–1951), 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD072-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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