Forces at Work in Wittgenstein

I’ve generally been impressed by David G. Stern‘s careful and extensively-researched work on Wittgenstein. In responding to a comment from T.P. Uschanov, I mentioned Stern’s paper on the debate over the transitions in Wittgenstein’s philosophy, “How Many Wittgensteins?” In addition to making the intriguing case that the Philosophical Investigations have a distinctly more Pyrrhonic flavor than Wittgenstein’s other later writings, Stern also gives this general summation of what really is shared across Wittgenstein’s work, as well as a comment on how the technique of the Philosophical Investigations goes about achieving it.

What is really interesting about both the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations is neither a metaphysical system, nor a supposedly definitive answer to system-building, but the unresolved tension between two forces: one aims at a definitive answer to the problems of philosophy, the other aims at doing away with them altogether. While they are not diametrically opposed to one another, there is a great tension between them, and most readers have tried to resolve this tension by arguing, not only that one of them is the clear victor, but also that this is what the author intended. Here I am indebted to the wording of the conclusion of David Pears’ Wittgenstein: “Each of the two forces without the other would have produced results of much less interest. … But together they produced something truly great”.  However Pears, a leading exponent of the “two-Wittgensteins” interpretation, and the author of one of the canonical metaphysical readings of the Tractatus, only attributes this to the later philosophy. In the case of the Tractatus, this tension is clearest in the foreword and conclusion, where the author explicitly addresses the issue; in the Investigations, it is at work throughout the book.

The Investigations is best understood as inviting the reader to engage in a philosophical dialogue, a dialogue that is ultimately about whether philosophy is possible, about the impossibility and necessity of philosophy, rather than as advocating either a Pyrrhonian or a non-Pyrrhonian answer. This result is best understood, I believe, as emerging out of the reader’s involvement in the dialogue of the Philosophical Investigations, our temptation into, attraction toward, philosophical theorizing, and our coming to see that it doesn’t work in particular cases, rather than as the message that any one voice in the dialogue is conveying.

David G. Stern, How Many Wittgensteins?

I am still fairly enamored of the metaphysical reading of the Tractatus, but as a pithy statement of Wittgenstein’s overall philosophical character, I find this pretty compelling.

As a footnote, here is David Pears’ excellent and very different original context for the phrasing Stern uses above, which also goes a way to summing up the distinction between Wittgenstein and the Ordinary Language Philosophers like Austin and Ryle:

But it is only one half of the truth to say that his resistance to science produced his later view of philoso­phy. There was also his linguistic naturalism, which played an equally important role. These two tendencies, one of them anti positivistic and the other in a more subtle way positivistic , are not diametrically opposed to one another. But there is great tension between them, and his later philosophy is an expression of this tension. Each of the two forces without the other would have produced results of much less interest. The linguistic naturalism by itself would have been a dreary kind of philosophy done under a low and leaden sky. The resistance to science by itself might have led to almost any kind of nonsense. But together they produced something truly great.

David Pears, Ludwig Wittgenstein

And not only great, but far more wide-ranging than many of those who have picked up on either of the two elements in isolation.


  1. Balaustion
    23 September 2011

    i think that’s right. That’s more or less Burton Dreben’s view, who saw both the Tractus LW and the PI LW in extremely, bracingly, radical terms, and of course was interested in the continuity of the show/say and also the Sinnlos/Unsinning distinction in both.

  2. David Auerbach
    26 September 2011

    I don’t think I’ve read Dreben, and the only book I can find is the Decision Problems one he wrote with Goldfarb. Any particular papers?

    My undergrad paper under Pears was on saying/showing in TLP, but I made no headway in finding it substantively in the later work (what of it I had at my hands at the time: the Investigations and Philosophical Occasions). So now I want to know!

  3. Balaustion
    26 September 2011

    He talks (talks! I have the tapes!) about it a lot in the philosophy of mathematics. The difference between a proof and an experiment. Whether math shows or says. It’s in some of the papers he published in the last decade or so of his life. But mainly it was in class. Look for papers by Juliet Floyd though – she was heavily influenced by (and married to) him.

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