Home - Wittgenstein's Logic of Language (Background) | Bibliography

What Wittgenstein Did Not Banish

Neither the Enlightenment nor Wittgenstein drove the wondrous from the world or the mystical from reality, but only from philosophy.

Topics on this page ...

Context: How is language with meaning to be distinguished from nonsense in the discussion of philosophical problems? That is the subject of "logic of language" and what the remarks on this page are often directed towards.

Words that follow "Query" are Internet searches that were directed to this site, and are followed by my comments.

One Sentence Summaries

Query: Socrates' basic motto.

There are many possibilities. The precept "Know thyself" was much older than Socrates (Plato, Protagoras 343b), but that is one possibility. Because to know oneself -- of which there are two parts -- means to know the specific excellence that is proper (1) to mankind as such, and (2) to oneself as an individual human being. And that knowledge -- if it is true that the good for a thing is to exist in accord with the specific excellence that is proper and unique to it -- tells one how to live one's life, both practically (not over- or under-reaching one's own limits) and ethically, i.e. in rational accord with the moral virtues such as courage, piety, justness, and self-control, which are proper to mankind.

And it is the excellence that is proper to man as an ethical being that is Socrates' concern in philosophy -- namely Ethics, or in the words of Plato: "we are discussing no small matter, but how to live." It was Socrates "who introduced ethics" as a subject in philosophy (Diog. L. i, 14).

Another important motto we might derive from Socrates would be: "Don't tell -- Ask!" or "Don't presume -- Question!" Don't presume you know what you think you know -- instead, question whether you do know it. How? Socrates defined 'to know' thus: if a man knows anything he can give an explanation of what he knows to others (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1), an explanation that can be put to the test in Socratic dialectic, or in other words, in Socrates' method of question and answer and cross-questioning in order to refute -- by discovering contradiction or unclarity in the answer -- or to agree to the answer; his method requires step-by-step agreement: the discussion cannot proceed without that agreement.

Socrates set this standard for philosophy -- i.e. selected this definition of 'know' -- so that philosophical knowledge will be public (PI § 125) and thereby objective.

When we "tell" in philosophy -- i.e. make an assertion -- it is with the presumption that we know what we are talking about, a presumption in which we are very often mistaken -- and to think we know what we don't know is the very mistake -- which is the most fundamental of all mistakes -- that Socrates did not make in philosophy -- and it is why in Plato's Apology the Delphic oracle said that no man is wiser than Socrates.

Query: when you don't know something, ask. Socrates asked questions rather than ...

... presume he knew what he may not have known, important things, not merely his own name. This was the only way for Socrates himself, because "he knew nothing except just the fact of his ignorance" (Diog. L. ii, 32) -- because he himself did not have knowledge of the things it would be most important for man to know, e.g. an absolute standard by which to judge exactly what we must do in any and every circumstance to be just or pious or brave. In other words, Socrates knew that he had no philosophical knowledge (wisdom).

And, "surely, that which we know, we must be able to tell"? (Plato, Laches 190c) But Socrates knew that he had nothing to tell -- because even when holding discourse with himself alone he wasn't able to defend his propositions against refutation. "Obeying my understanding of Apollo's words that no one is wiser than I am (although I myself am without wisdom), I question myself and others to see if any is wise, or if he only thinks he knows what he does not know" (cf. Plato, Apology 37e-38a).

The method of dialectic is very different from the method of the philosophical essay (or speech-making), including Wittgenstein's books of "remarks", although Wittgenstein did call his investigations "conversations with myself" (tête-à-tête), which may be a form of dialectical cross-questioning (Antisthenes' called this "holding discourse with oneself"). Dialectic was for Socrates something done face to face where "words can defend themselves", unlike the written word, which cannot (Phaedrus 275c-e).

Well but Socrates could have had many other mottos. For example, "Always choose the better rather than the pleasanter way" (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 8, 11). Another possibility is: "Those who think they know what they do not know are themselves misled and mislead others", but those who do know "can give an account of what they know to others" (ibid. iv, 6, 1).

The first query, the one that asks for Socrates' motto is a very good query, because it makes you think. (Cf. the quotation below which has: "In so far as this can be described in one sentence".)

Query: Socrates' guiding motto. Explain what is the meaning of Socrates' motto, The unexamined life is not worth living.

That is what Socrates says in Plato's Apology 37e-38a, that to live without asking what is good and how to live our life is to sleepwalk through life as the other animals do. But man is not by nature "a beast wanting discourse of reason" (Shakespeare) as they are, and so if man is to live according to the specific excellence that is proper to his own nature, he must "reason out the how and why" (Aristophanes) of our life. To live in a way that is contrary to his own specific excellence (areté) is not "worthy" of man. Something like this maybe is the reply to the query.

Query: put philosophical insights into fewer words.

And that is what I have tried to do, although there is always the danger of distortion ("mangling or watering down") and catchwords. Question: must every insight be reducible to "a simple story in words of one syllable"?

Die Wunder sind geblieben : The wondrous remained

The Times (London) obituary (29 April 1951), "Dr. L. Wittgenstein". Therein is an idea similar to what I meant when I said that learning to see language in Wittgenstein's way is like experiencing a universal Gestalt shift. However, that statement must be qualified [or, tempered] by: "it is possible to be interested in a phenomenon in a variety of ways" (PI § 108), i.e. from a various points of view.

It should not be thought that just because we look at thought from the point of view of logic of language rather than looking at it as a natural phenomenon -- that thought has somehow become less mysterious, less puzzling or less wonderful. Thought hasn't become commonplace simply because we only look at language [i.e. at how we use the word 'thought'] when we talk about thought. There is still fascination. (Wittgenstein did not as it were banish the fairies from the kingdom, as did the court philosophers in Klein Zaches, saying that they do not exist.)

"L. Wittgenstein" (Times obituary, 29 April 1951)

What is beyond doubt is that ... he started a world-wide philosophical trend. In so far as this can be described in one sentence, it consists in following up the idea that thinking consists in using a language. Thus thought, which it had been easy to conceive of as a private, indefinable, amorphous entity, becomes the manipulation of some symbolism, something public, something which can be "nailed down" and to which the techniques of formal logic can be applied.

That's quite good for having been written before the publication of the Philosophical Investigations. Its author mentions the Blue Book and Brown Book but appears, however, either not to have read them or to have read them with slight understanding; because the allusion to "techniques of formal logic" is Wittgenstein's earlier view: it belongs to Bertrand Russell and the TLP. Ah, and misperception of misperceptions, it seems to say that Wittgenstein had a theory about what thought "really is" (which would be metaphysics, not logic).

If in logic of language we "analyze" the "concept of thought" -- that is, the use of a word -- rather than analyse the phenomenon (or phenomena) of thinking (PI § 383), that is not (1) because all thought can be put into words (e.g. knowing "how a clarinet sounds" (ibid. § 78) or how an orange smells), or (2) because what is philosophically most important about a subject matter is necessarily its language (e.g. aesthetics | religion), or (3) because the study of topics such as sense perception, animal psychology, abnormal psychology, things like this, is delusional (as if Wittgenstein had somehow discovered that thinking really is only "operating with signs" (BB p. 6, 15-16), and therefore that psychologists have no real work to do).

To say that Wittgenstein in his work de-mystified thought or made the phenomenon of thought less something to be wondered at is to mistake his true intent. Because it was ever his aim to, in the words of M. O'C. Drury, "keep wonder secure", not to lessen but to intensify our sense of the mystery of our existence. All Wittgenstein ever tried to do was to clear away false mysteries -- i.e. misperceptions -- in philosophy.

Man sagt, das Wunderbare sei von der Erde verschwunden, ich glaube nicht daran. Die Wunder sind geblieben. (E.T.A. Hoffmann)

What we might say, using the obituary's expression, is that language can be "nailed down" -- and to that extent so can philosophy. But the phenomenon of thought, on the other hand, cannot be.

Language and the Birth of Religion

Note: this continues the discussions The origins of religion, and The method of language-games for understanding religion (Is that method useful?)

Query: did language create religion?

I may have suggested that instinct did (e.g. sensing a soul as the source of the sudden, unexpected movement of a nearby object; cf. "Primitive man does not ask what caused it, but who caused it", and that might be a source for the creation of gods and nature spirits). I do not think religion can be dismissed in the way that Wittgenstein dismissed philosophy -- i.e. as mere conceptual -- i.e. grammatical confusion (PI § 109).

If we came across a tribe that did not use language [that was without language], would we have criteria for saying about its people: Such-and-such acts are [such-and-such of their behavior is] religion? But that would still not answer the question "What created religion?" -- e.g. whether it was linguistic muddle that was responsible for it.

Cf. Does religion belong to "the childhood of mankind"? Wittgenstein did not think so: Man's trying to say what, in Wittgenstein's view, cannot be said, "to thrust against the limits of language", he held in the highest esteem as "a tendency of the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it" (LE p. 12); "I can only say: I don't belittle this human tendency; I take my hat off to it" (LE/Notes p. 16). "What must the man be called, who cannot understand the concept 'God' ...? Are we to say he suffers from some blindness?" (RPP i § 213) i.e. concept-blindness, but something deeper than that as well, blindness to the important part of life in Wittgenstein's view.

Query: Wittgenstein, language-games makes God-talk possible; discuss.
Query: God is a language-game, Wittgenstein.

Forms of expression may affect us as grass affects a dog, although the concept 'vulgarity' has a place in the human way of life, not in the canine. These queries are examples of what Wittgenstein did not want his influence to be.

Socrates at the Neighbor's Porch

[Aristodemus of Cydathenaeum (173b, 174a) narrates] ... we started out, and as we went along Socrates feel into a fit of abstraction and began to lag behind, but when I was going to wait for him he told me to go on ahead.

[Agathon who is hosting the symposium (or, banquet, but it was not a drunken party on this particular evening) sends one of the servants to fetch Socrates in, but] the servant [returns] with the news that ... Socrates had retreated into the next-door neighbor's porch. "And there he stood," said the [servant]. "And when I asked him in he wouldn't come."

[Aristodemus says,] "It's quite a habit of his, you know; off he goes and there he stands, no matter where it is." [Cf. Symposium 220c-d]

Well, we started dinner and still there was no sign of Socrates; Agathon still wanted to send for him, but I wouldn't let him. And when at last he did turn up, we weren't more than halfway through the dinner ...

As he came in, Agathon, who was sitting by himself at the far end of the table, called out, "Here you are, Socrates. Come and sit next to me; I want to share this great thought that's just struck you in the porch next door. I'm sure you must have mastered it, or you'd still be standing there."

"My dear Agathon," Socrates replied as he took his seat beside him, "I only wish that wisdom were the kind of thing that one could share by sitting next to someone -- if it [were the case that it] flowed, for instance, from one that was full to the one that was empty, like the water in two cups finding its level through a piece worsted.... My own understanding is a shadowy thing at best, as equivocal [in meaning] as a dream ..." (Plato, Symposium, tr. Joyce, 174d-175e)

What -- not who -- cannot be refuted

"I cannot refute you, Socrates," said Agathon: "-- Let us assume that what you say is true."

"Say rather, beloved Agathon, that you cannot refute the truth; for Socrates is easily refuted." (Symposium 201c, tr. Jowett; tr. Joyce has: "I'm afraid you're quite unanswerable." "No, dear Agathon. It's the truth you find unanswerable, not Socrates.")

Site copyright © September 1998. Please send corrections and criticism of this page to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 14 September 2010 : 2010-09-14

The URL of this Web page:

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language - Introduction and Table of Contents | Bibliography | Site Search | Site Map