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The Great Philosophers: Wittgenstein on Human Nature by Peter Hacker

The Great Philosophers: Wittgenstein on Human Nature
by Peter Hacker


A pioneering figure in analytic philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is a clear example of philosophical genius. A profoundly intense, tortured, and solitary man, he produced two masterpieces of philosophy with fundamentally opposed views of language — both of which have been wildly influential. Peter Hacker introduces us to perhaps the most important philosopher since Kant, and explains why Wittgenstein would be horrified by Noam Chomsky.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

The Great Philosophers: Wittgenstein on Human Nature by Peter Hacker

The Great Philosophers: Wittgenstein on Human Nature
by Peter Hacker

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Who was Ludwig Wittgenstein?

Wittgenstein was an Austrian, born in 1889 to a family of converted Jews. His father, Karl Wittgenstein, had been the head of the Austrian steel industry and possessed great wealth. The family occupied a distinguished position in Viennese society because of Karl Wittgenstein’s eminence, philanthropy, and patronage of the arts. They had the leading music salon in Vienna. Brahms, Mahler, Bruno Walter, and Pablo Casals were all friends of the family who played in the family mansion known in Vienna as the ‘Palais Wittgenstein’. There were eight children, of whom Ludwig was the youngest. He was brought up by private tutors getting most of his cultural guidance from his sister Margareta. He was educated at home until the age of fifteen and then was sent to a high school in Linz for three years. On completing school, he decided to study engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin. He completed a two-year course there and became interested in aeronautics. He then went to Manchester to study this nascent science. While there, he invented a jet propulsion propeller which was patented. In Manchester, he stumbled across the writings of the great nineteenth-century formal logician and mathematician Gottlob Frege. Wittgenstein visited Frege, who advised him to study with Bertrand Russell. So, Wittgenstein went to Cambridge, met Russell, and decided to stay in Cambridge to study philosophy under him. Over the next seven years, he laboured intensely on a book on the nature of logic, logical necessity, and the limits of what can be said in language. His first masterpiece, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), was the fruit of labours begun in Cambridge and continued throughout the war.

“In my view, he is the most important philosopher since Kant, but at least as difficult to understand as Kant (although for very different reasons.)”

He fought for Austria in the First World War and was decorated for gallantry. He came back from the war in a state of depression. Believing himself to have solved the deepest problems in philosophy, he was now in search of a vocation. He decided, in a Tolstoyan manner, to become a primary school teacher in a peasant village in upper Austria. He stayed there for six years. He wasn’t happy as a village schoolmaster. He was a harsh and irascible teacher, but a dedicated one. This career came to end with an unfortunate incident when he slapped a child around the head. This led to an official complaint and he was dismissed in disgrace. He returned to Vienna, disconsolate and depressed. His sister Margarete roped him into helping design and oversee the construction of a mansion for her, which can still be seen today.

In 1929, he went to Cambridge with the idea of developing further some of the ideas in the Tractatus. He rapidly came to the conclusion that much of what he had written in that book was misguided. The next four or five years in Cambridge were spent in a frenzy of creative thought. He began working on what was to become his second masterpiece: the Philosophical Investigations. This undermined much of what he had written in the Tractatus and advanced a wholly new philosophy of a profoundly revolutionary kind. After that, he worked largely on the philosophy of psychology, and on knowledge and certainty. He died of cancer in 1951.

In his life, he produced two great masterpieces of colossal importance. The Tractatus dominated philosophical discussion from the time of its publication in 1921 and the Second World War. It addresses the deepest problems in philosophy: the nature of representation in general and of representation by means of language in particular; the nature of logic and logical necessity; the relations between language, thought and reality; the metaphysical structure of the world; the limits of what can be said in language and the character of what cannot be said but can be shown. It also confronted the antecedent tradition in philosophy, in particular the philosophies of Frege and Russell, his two great predecessors, whose views he demolished. The Philosophical Investigations dominated discussion in the English-speaking world from 1953, when it was published, until the mid 1970s. It addresses much the same problems, but from a totally different perspective, and it goes beyond them to examine deep questions concerning knowledge of one’s own experience, language and thought, thinking and imagination, consciousness and self-consciousness, willing and intending, and many others. It undermines his first philosophy, and moves off in new directions with stunning originality.

The upshot is a revolutionary conception of philosophy, an unprecedented conception of the nature of language and of linguistic understanding, of the nature of the mind, consciousness and self-knowledge. If he is right, as I believe him to be, then most of theoretical philosophy (philosophy of language and logic, epistemology and metaphysics, philosophy of mind) since Descartes has been wrong. In my view, he is the most important philosopher since Kant, but at least as difficult to understand as Kant (although for very different reasons).

You haven’t picked any texts by Wittgenstein himself. Could you say a bit about the considerations that have shaped your book choices?

Wittgenstein is a philosopher’s philosopher. The Tractatus is written in short, marmoreal, sibylline sentences which are terribly difficult to understand. He was later to say that each of the sentences of the Tractatus could do as the heading of a chapter—there is some truth to that. It’s impossible to understand without deep knowledge of his great predecessors, Frege and Russell. It is too difficult to recommend to anyone who is not familiar with their work. I have chosen memoirs and intellectual biographies that describe his life and work. He had an intensity about him that was apparently quite awesome and fairly frightening. Wittgenstein had a passion for the subject that was extraordinary. It’s difficult to separate out his life from his work, which is true of all great geniuses.

I thought I would pick an introductory book that is accessible to everyone, then the canonical biography, then a volume of essays by acquaintances and friends of his about Wittgenstein himself and about their relationship to him, which is of considerable interest. Finally, a couple of books that will introduce Wittgenstein’s philosophical thought in relatively easy stages. What I hope that will do is to gain people’s interest in this great thinker and stimulate their appetite for more, so that they can pursue matters further by themselves.

Let’s go on to the books. Your first choice is Ludwig Wittgenstein by Edward Kanterian.

Edward Kanterian is a reader in philosophy at the University of Kent. This book is a short intellectual biography. It gives one an overview of Wittgenstein’s life which is very well synthesised with an overview of his philosophical thought, in a way that any intelligent reader would be comfortable with. It makes very clear what an extraordinary man he was, but also what extraordinary originality he had. It explains the contours of his philosophical work with admirable clarity. I thought this would be the best work to start with.

The books that discuss his life give the impression of a formidably intense and irascible person. But he seems like he could have this almost child-like playfulness about him too. Can you say something about this tension in his personality?

On the whole, he was terribly serious except with people who weren’t intellectuals. Then, a certain innocent playfulness and childish kind of humour would come out. The ordinary people he liked weren’t hypocrites, they weren’t two-faced, and they weren’t trying to conceal anything. In his contact with intellectuals, he is always dead serious and there’s never any small talk. One of his great pupils—perhaps the greatest of his pupils—Georg Henrik von Wright said that to spend a couple of hours with Wittgenstein was like facing the day of judgement. He stripped one’s soul bare and insisted on absolute honesty. He detested any form of deception, dishonesty, or reluctance to face up to deep problems no matter whether about oneself and one’s life, or about ideas in philosophy. He was quite ruthless about that.

“Georg Henrik von Wright said that to spend a couple of hours with Wittgenstein was like facing the day of judgement.”

Sometimes one would say something, von Wright related, and Wittgenstein would fly into a rage. von Wright wouldn’t have the faintest idea why he was so angry. Interestingly, he said it was alright with his wife Elizabeth because if Wittgenstein shouted at Elizabeth then she would shout back. Wittgenstein respected that. But von Wright said “I just couldn’t do that,” and one sympathizes. But when Wittgenstein chatted with uneducated people, he could be perfectly congenial and relaxed. I don’t think he relaxed with many of his intellectual friends or pupils.

Do you think this attitude towards intellectuals is related to his wider disenchantment with the academy?

Wittgenstein thought that philosophy in particular lends itself to intellectual dishonesty—to coming out with things which you didn’t fully understand yourself, but pretend to understand. Or not confessing that you didn’t understand something because you’d lose face. Or advancing ideas and theories which you had only the faintest grasp of yourself. Since philosophy is concerned with the bounds of sense, a mistake in philosophy is not an empirical falsehood, but sheer nonsense, albeit well-concealed nonsense. As a consequence, philosophy is a subject which you can spend your whole life doing and yet everything you’ve done may be worthless. That is terrible. In history you might be working on some tiny subject, like the increase in the size of the cow in Norfolk between 1350-1560. It’s not wildly exciting, but it might add a tiny tessera to somebody else’s mosaic. So, it’s not totally worthless. But, in philosophy, you may just be talking nonsense from beginning to end. It may be completely worthless. It needn’t be, because great mistakes are important too. But there’s an awful lot of nonsense that is just too confused to be useful even as a confusion to argue against. Wittgenstein was very aware of that.

Your second book choice is Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk. This was the first comprehensive biography of Wittgenstein to be published and has been immensely popular ever since.

It was preceded by Brian McGuinness’ biography called Young Ludwig which recounts Wittgenstein’s life until 1921. It is an extremely good biography with much fascinating detail and based on deep knowledge of Viennese culture, but it only gives you half the life. Ray Monk’s gives you the complete biography. It’s a very sympathetically written book with a marvellous instinct for the psychology of the subject. It gives you an intelligible picture of Wittgenstein. To what extent it’s true, I can’t answer. (That’s a problem with all biographies.) But it’s a convincing picture which renders his life intelligible to a considerable degree. It also gives one a good idea of his philosophy. The biographical material is interspersed with philosophical discussion, and that is attractively lucid. It makes clear how fascinating Wittgenstein was in his endeavour to confront the problems of philosophy and resolve them. It makes clear where his genius lay. I’d certainly recommend reading Ray Monk’s book and I’m fairly sure that most people who do read it will become captivated by the personality of the man and interested in his ideas.

The portrait seems to be of a tragically lonely life, punctuated by suicidal ideation and devastating love affairs with both men and women. This is a very tortured man.

Very much so. No doubt this lies partly in his upbringing. As I said, he was the youngest of eight children. Two of his brothers committed suicide when he was still a little boy, and a third brother committed suicide in 1918 in the war. This had a terrible impact on him. He went through his life constantly afraid of committing suicide himself. He held suicide in contempt, but he was afraid of its great temptation to anyone suffering appalling psychological burdens. He was intensely lonely. He craved love but found it, as he said himself, extremely difficult to give. If I remember correctly, he once compared himself to a hedgehog trying to huddle up to another hedgehog. On the various occasions in which he thought he loved someone, his first instinct was to flee. He was obsessively preoccupied with his own personality, brooding over his sins as he saw them. I can think one can fairly say that he was a connoisseur of self-torment. It was as if he couldn’t walk down the street in the sunshine without looking at his own shadow. That’s a terrible burden to carry.

“I can think one can fairly say that Wittgenstein was a connoisseur of self-torment.”

Notoriously, he had a cottage built for himself at the head of a fjord in Norway right on the edge of a very steep dangerous cliff. He would go and stay there for quite long periods of time. In one case, he stayed there for more than a year in complete solitude. The nearest town was about three miles away and there was no road there. He had to row across a lake and then walk into town. The solitude was in one sense terrible but in another sense he felt it enabled him write without the disturbances of the contact of other people. He was a tragic figure who surely never found peace of mind, let alone love.

Monk gives the scope of the many vocations that Wittgenstein takes on throughout his life. These include engineer, philosopher, soldier, prisoner-of-war, primary school teacher, architect, and paramedic. Are we to see these shifts as manifestations of his underlying intellectual restlessness?

In one sense yes and in another sense no. He goes from being a young researcher in philosophy when he was first working with Bertrand Russell in Cambridge and then working alone in Norway. Then he volunteers for the armed forces and becomes an ordinary private in the Austrian artillery and later an officer. He continued to work on his book during that period, but he viewed the war as a test of character and personality. He was one of those curious people who thought you could only discover what you really are when you’re risking your life. Where others were trying their best to stay out of gunfire, he was doing his best to get into it. He viewed the war as a personal test. After the war, when he’d finished work on the Tractatus, he thought he’d solved all problems of philosophy. That sounds terribly arrogant, but it was certainly the view he took: that the deepest problems had been resolved. He was very unsure what to do with himself, so he took up the task of being a primary school teacher. He gave up school teaching after the incident with slapping a child and went back to Vienna. He was dragged into the work on architecture by his sister Margareta simply because this would give him something new to preoccupy himself with and get him out of his depression. Indeed, he seemed to have engaged in the architecture work with immense concentration as usual and found satisfaction in so doing. When that came to an end, he again wasn’t sure what to do with himself.

“After the war, when he’d finished work on the Tractatus, he thought he’d solved all problems of philosophy.”

He then returned to Cambridge in order to develop his philosophical ideas further. When he became a paramedic, it was because he wanted to do war work in London. As he put it in his inimitable manner, he wanted to be where the bombs are falling. So, he got a job in a hospital and was a simple hospital orderly. That wasn’t due to restlessness but to his sense of obligation to do something worthwhile for the war effort. It was there that he became an assistant to a couple of doctors working on shell-shock wounds. He went up to Newcastle with them working as their assistant for about a year, contributing to a paper that was subsequently published in a medical research journal. After that he went back to philosophy until 1947 when he gave up teaching. During the last four years of his life, he wrote as much as he could. So, the answer is both yes and no.

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His main preoccupation was clearly philosophy and with struggling to solve its problems. He did think this could be done. In his later view, he holds that solving the problems of philosophy involves two tasks. First, disentangling knotted threads in our thought. He was a great master of doing precisely that. Secondly, clarifying the structure of our conceptual scheme—clarifying the patterns of relationships between concepts that are particularly puzzling. For example: what is the relationship between knowledge and belief? What is the relationship between belief and voluntariness? We do tell people that they shouldn’t believe this and they should believe that. But believing something isn’t an act, so how can one instruct somebody to do it if it’s not an act one can do? There’s a real problem there, and he does resolve it.

Your third choice is Recollections of Wittgenstein, edited by Rush Rhees.

Ray Monk’s book is an excellent biography but, of course, he never knew Wittgenstein. The many essays by friends, pupils, and acquaintances in this book give an immediate first-hand notion of what the man was like and what it was like to talk to him. In this particular collection, there is an extremely interesting essay by his older sister Hermine. There’s a memoir by Fania Pascal who taught Wittgenstein Russian in the mid-thirties, when he was considering abandoning his academic career and settling in Russia as a workman or agricultural labourer. He was very friendly with Fania Pascal, and she writes a really fascinating memoir of their relationship. Then, there’s a recollection of Wittgenstein by the great literary critic and theorist F R Leavis. After that, there’s something from a pupil of his, John King. Then there are two very long discussions by a closer friend, M O’C Drury, whom Wittgenstein had befriended and helped through medical school. There are long discussions about the nature of religious belief which are particularly fascinating. I definitely recommend this. It’s a very good read and it gives you a more intimate picture of Wittgenstein than you can get from Ray Monk’s biography.

Are there particular anecdotes that come to mind?

Some of them are harsh. If I remember correctly, Fania Pascal has an operation and Wittgenstein goes to visit her. He asks how she’s feeling, and she says: “I feel like a run-over dog”. He replies, “how do you know what a run-over dog feels like?” It’s not exactly the sort of thing one should be saying under the circumstances, but it’s altogether typical of him.

Having concentrated on the man, we are now going to focus on Wittgenstein the philosopher. Your fourth choice is Wittgenstein by Severin Schroeder.

Of the books that I’ve selected here, this is undoubtedly the most difficult. It is a straight philosophical account of Wittgenstein’s views in the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations. It is very well written and very clear. It is not easy, but I think it is the best single presentation of a reasonably advanced kind which will take you quite deep into Wittgenstein’s conceptions both in the Tractatus in the Investigations. Schroeder is a Reader at the University of Reading and one of the best Wittgenstein scholars around today. I found this book really helpful. It resolves a lot of puzzling questions that others hadn’t resolved. It gives one a whole range of Wittgenstein’s own arguments laid out with great clarity, which is something that Wittgenstein couldn’t himself do.

Wittgenstein was congenitally incapable of writing continuous prose that he was satisfied with. What facilitated his creativity was to write down brief remarks which could be one or two sentences or sometimes two or three paragraphs. He would be looking for an expression which would capture the essence of the problem or the essence of a solution to a problem at one blow. Once he found it, he wouldn’t touch it again. His method of composition was to write down his thoughts in notebooks. When he came to the stage when he wanted to organise these materials into a book, he’d have his notes typed out, he’d cut the pages of the typescript into pieces, and would fiddle around with these fragments until he found an arrangement that pleased him. Not altogether surprisingly, he could hardly ever find one. He had endless trouble. It’s a serious question whether he was the best judge in his own case. In the 20,000 pages of literary remains, you find sublime remarks that he put aside as they weren’t good enough. They’re not only good enough, some of them are among the best things he ever wrote!

Wittgenstein’s prose is immensely powerful once you’ve got a reasonable grip on the way he thinks. It reverberates and echoes and invites endless thought from the reader, which is precisely what he wanted to do. But it is very difficult to follow and it’s very difficult to lay out systematically so that one can actually see what he takes for granted and doesn’t bother writing down. Severin Schroeder is very good at doing precisely that, at spelling out the arguments in meticulous detail in a way in which Wittgenstein himself never could do. But all the arguments in the book are actually Wittgenstein’s. That’s why I recommend this very warmly. It’s one of the best introductory books that grapple with Wittgenstein’s philosophy.

Can you give a sense of the positions that Wittgenstein advances in the Tractatus and later in the Philosophical Investigations and the differences between them?

These are two diametrically opposed philosophies. He’s really travelling from the north pole to the south pole. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein articulates a conception of representation by means of language which presents language as an abstract calculus of meaning. The rough idea is that, given a set of primitive expressions, a set of formation and transformation rules, and various combinatorial devices, a linguistic machine (or a human being) can grind out all possible sentences. There’s a complex philosophical theory that underlies the Tractatus about the nature and limits of representation, of what can and cannot be said in a language. If you look in the Tractatus for human beings engaged in discourse in the hurly-burly of life, that is totally absent. Human beings are almost excluded from this pure logical house. There’s virtually nothing at all about learning how to do things with words: how to request, how to specify, how to state, how to describe, what the differences are between describing what you can see and describing how the building you want to build is going to look, and between that and describing the dream that you had last night. None of this fits the Tractatus. I would present the Tractatus as representing the most austere variant of a calculus conception of language.

By contrast, Wittgenstein’s second philosophy, which culminates in the Investigations, presents language as an organic growth in human history. It an anthropological phenomenon, as opposed to logico-mathematical structure. Language grows out of human activity. He liked to quote Goethe’s remark “In the beginning was the deed” which stands in contrast with the thought that “in the beginning was the word.” He views language as a motley of what he calls language-games. These are more or less rule-governed activities in which the use of words is integrated into the stream of human life. As in a game, the rules may be very flexible, and much may be left completely open. This stands in contrast to the calculi of logic, in which nothing should be left open. Human beings employ the words and sentences of language as instruments by which they can do things. They engage in the language games of buying and selling things, they may play the language-game of keeping accounts, they can write books—for that too may be viewed as a language-game, they can send letters to their friends, they can stick names on things—and so on and so forth through a myriad of linguistic activities. Now, there couldn’t be a greater contrast between these two conceptions of language. I think the latter is one of the greatest advances in understanding the nature of human languages and the nature of human communication. This was completely absent in the Tractatus. There Wittgenstein did not have the method of meticulously examining how an expression is used in a wide variety of linguistic contexts, in widely different circumstances, for altogether distinct purposes. He paid no attention to human discourse in the hurly-burly of life. He was obsessed with the use of language to state facts, oblivious to the multitude of different roles that words and utterances have.

“Wittgenstein would view theories of language such as Chomsky’s with horror.”

This later philosophy had a great impact for two or three decades, but then under pressure from Chomskian linguists and from philosophers who were enamoured with calculus conceptions of language like Donald Davidson and Michael Dummett, Wittgenstein’s views on language as an anthropomorphic phenomenon were brushed aside. I think this has come at a huge cost in the understanding of the nature of language, and in the multiplication of yet more nonsense and theories which, if you press them, simply don’t make sense. Wittgenstein would view theories of language such as Chomsky’s with horror. He would view the idea that there could be rules of language in the brain with disdain—as a phrase that makes no sense at all. Wittgenstein spent a huge amount of time exploring a topic which, I think, only Kant had explored carefully before—which is the nature of rules and complying with rules. That’s of great importance because he linked rule-following in his later work with human practices and engagement in activities. Whereas, people like Chomsky and psychologists working on the psychology of language assume that it makes sense to talk about the brain complying with rules or there being rules in the brain. Wittgenstein shows why that doesn’t make sense. So, his relevance to current activities in psychology, in neuroscience, in linguistics, and philosophy of language is colossal. But I’m sorry to say that not many people pay attention to it at the moment.

Could you say a little more about Wittgenstein’s distinctive conception of what philosophy is?

There is a connecting strand between the Tractatus and his later views on philosophy. Philosophy is not a science and is not in competition with science. It is either above the sciences or below the sciences, but not on the same level. That’s something that he held throughout his life. It is important and radical. In his later view, when he develops his conception of philosophy to its full fruition, he thinks that there are two aspects to philosophy. One is negative, and one positive.

The negative one is to disentangle philosophical misunderstandings and conceptual confusions which tie knots in our comprehension, by careful and meticulous examination of the uses of words. This might be illuminated by the following metaphor. The philosopher should walk to the top of the magic mountain. At the top is a cave full of a gold encrusted with jewels, diamonds, pearls, and emeralds glittering and gleaming. The task of philosophy is to take a handful of this treasure out into the sunlight, away from the magical cave, and show that it is really just old stones and rusting metal. The metaphysical stories that philosophers have spun throughout the ages—the alleged insights into the necessary structure of the world—are all illusions and they can be shown to be illusions.

Similarly, there are endless misunderstandings about the nature of thought and thinking, such as the idea that thought is a process that can carry on irrespective of a language, so that it might make sense to ascribe very complicated thoughts to animals or to small children. Now that, for rather complicated reasons, makes no sense at all. The limits of thought are the limits of the possible expression of thought. And the possible expression of thought is determined by the behavioural repertoire of the animal. A dog can expect its master to come in the door now, because he can hear his footsteps on the path, but the dog can’t now expect its master to come in tomorrow. There is nothing in the dog’s behavioural repertoire that would show such an expectation. The dog might welcome a nice bone on Christmas day, but it can’t anticipate it six months before because its behavioural repertoire doesn’t contain anything that would show that this is what it expects. Whereas we can say what we expect. We have a concept of tomorrow, of yesterday, of next year, and next Christmas. We can display in our linguistic behaviour a range of expectations that no other animal could possibly have. These things are immensely important clarifications and elucidations which Wittgenstein offers again and again on dozens of topics in Philosophical Investigations.

“If he is right, as I believe him to be, then most of theoretical philosophy (philosophy of language and logic, epistemology and metaphysics, philosophy of mind) since Descartes has been wrong.”

The negative task is of colossal importance. Side by side, there is a positive constructive aspect. This is purely descriptive and not theoretical. What is said does not consist of empirical statements that can be falsified or verified in experience. Rather, what is said is conceptual clarification. There are questions such as what is knowledge and how it related to belief? This is a perfectly good question. But it is a philosophical question, not an empirical one. It is about the concepts of knowing something and believing something—and the only way to clarify that is by meticulously examining the way that the verbs ‘to believe’ and ‘to know’ and the nouns ‘belief’ and ‘knowledge’ are applied in our language. If you have the skills that Wittgenstein cultivated, you can map out the pattern of relationships between these concepts and their employment. When you do that, the puzzle and the bafflement disappear. It has a spin-off in the negative critical side because, it will show that certain kinds of questions simply don’t make sense and have arisen from a misunderstanding.

Let me give you an example. Many people read about one dreadful genocide or another, horrified at the terrible things that human beings do to one another. A very natural and common reaction is to say “I don’t understand how people can do that.” The question is: what do they want in order to understand it? The Nazi genocide of the Jews is the best documented ever. What is there that we don’t know that would enable us to understand? I think the answer to the puzzle is that “I can’t understand” here is an exclamatory utterance, but not an expression of lack of understanding. It is an exclamation of horror. How can I show that? Compare it with “I can’t believe what he just told me.” This does not mean that I have tried to believe and it is too difficult for me. Rather, what is meant is that it runs contrary to everything that I thought possible. That’s what “I can’t believe…” means—it’s not an expression of disbelief. In a similar way, confronted with the ghastliness of the holocaust, one can say “I can’t understand…” and what that amounts to is that I can’t even begin to imagine that human beings could sink to such levels of depravity. It’s an expression of horror, not of a lack of understanding. One can only discern that if one examines the use of the term ‘understand’ on the one hand, and ‘belief’ on the other, with a degree of sensitivity. Then one can understand what is going on here. Wittgenstein was amazingly good at this. We are all too prone to take utterances of declarative sentences to be descriptions. But, very often, they are nothing of the sort. It’s quite difficult to wrap one’s mind around that. One example is “I’m so sorry…” I’m not describing myself here; I am apologising. It is not a description of my current state of mind. Another example is “I think we ought to go to London now.” Or “I want a drink”. These are not pieces of autobiography, but expressions of my judgement and of my wanting respectively. And so on, for an indefinite number of cases where we’re using a particular form of words to do things other than describing.

Your final book is The Principles of Linguistic Philosophy by Friedrich Waismann.

This book was written as a result of cooperation between Wittgenstein and Waismann from 1929-1936. It began as an endeavour commissioned by Moritz Schlick who was the leader of the Vienna Circle, a famous group of logical empiricists in Vienna. They thought that the Tractatus was one of the greatest books of all time and wanted Wittgenstein to produce a simplified version that would be intelligible to people who hadn’t specialised in Fregean or Russellian logic. It rapidly grew into something quite different because Wittgenstein’s ideas were changing very rapidly between 1929 and 1933. Waismann took extensive notes and, over the next years, wrote up an overview of Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy and his conception of language and linguistic philosophy, covering a very wide range of central themes. He was able to synthesise Wittgenstein’s ideas into straightforward, clear, and elegant prose. It may lack the magic of Wittgenstein’s own later style but it has the great merit that all is in view. In Wittgenstein’s later style, every sentence he writes is perfectly clear—there are no technicalities and no formalisation—but it’s very unclear why he’s saying what he’s saying. Nine tenths of the thought is, so to speak, buried under the surface and you have to dig it up for yourself. With Waismann, it’s all upfront but it loses the power and the mesmerising character of Wittgenstein’s later writing. You might say that you’ve lost the magic, but you’ve gained clarity and detail. So, I warmly recommend this book.

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The only thing that’s important to realise is that this is a book that represents a phase in Wittgenstein’s development, up to about 1936. I don’t think there’s a lot here which Wittgenstein would have later repudiated, but there are many developments in Wittgenstein’s thought which occur after 1936 and are not evident here. Many of the remarks in the Principles of Linguistic Philosophy pick up features that are aspects of the Tractatus and shows why they’re wrong. Other than that, he gives a picture of Wittgenstein’s views on language in the mid-30s, including the notion of a language game and the relation between language and activity, as opposed to language and calculation. And he does a good job of it. It’s a wonderfully reliable and engaging book that makes clear the importance and character of Wittgenstein’s later view of the nature of language and thought.

Finally, you mentioned earlier that Wittgenstein today is comparatively neglected in philosophy despite having been immensely influential for almost three decades. Why do you think this is?

By now there are very few people who understand what he is talking about. It’s very sad indeed. The casual criticisms of Wittgenstein that are thrown off are often by people who have no idea what he’s talking about. Professor Timothy Williamson here in Oxford has written critical articles about Wittgenstein in which he displays ignorance of what Wittgenstein was actually saying as well as ignorance of the history of the subject from 1919 to 1950. This is important because these leading philosophers are very influential. In my opinion, they corrupt the minds of the young.

“Those who by-pass Wittgenstein do so to their own detriment, for they are neglecting the most original philosopher of our times. ”

There are many accidentally converging reasons for the current neglect of Wittgenstein’s ideas. One is the development of a subject that calls itself cognitive science, but is neither cognitive nor scientific. Cognitive science was supposed to be a fruitful combination of theoretical linguistics, philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, and neuroscience. In fact, it’s an unholy mixture of incompatible elements. I don’t believe that it has produced anything worth attention. It fosters a form of scientism that is inimical to Wittgenstein’s philosophy.

The second reason is a reaction against the kind of linguistic philosophy that was practiced in Oxford, not only under Wittgenstein’s influence but also under the influence of J L Austin. Now, I don’t think there’s any incompatibility between Austin’s and Wittgenstein’s views on language—they are consistent—but they are certainly not the same. But there was a general reaction against it, precisely because it didn’t spin theories. People were craving for theories. Why? Well, largely to emulate the sciences. Science had come to dominate our culture and our civilisation to a degree hitherto undreamt of. The general idea was that if there’s a serious problem then science can answer it. If science cannot answer it, then it can’t be a serious problem. That is a terrible view. The most serious problems that human beings have to face are precisely the ones on which science can say absolutely nothing. For example, what it is to find meaning in one’s life, or the nature of good and evil, or the differences between causal and teleological explanations. There cannot possibly be a scientific solution to any philosophical problem for the simple reason that philosophical problems are conceptual, and they are concerned with the structure of our conceptual scheme, which is quite independent of the truth or falsehood of scientific statements. Conceptual investigations determine what does or doesn’t make sense. Science presupposes the conceptual scheme; it doesn’t clarify it and it doesn’t resolve entanglements it.

A third reason was the dominance of the USA in the world of philosophy from the 1970s. The USA is a scientific civilisation. American philosophy has a deeply pragmatist bent, alien to European thought. Partly as a result of the influx of members of the Vienna Circle in the 1930s, philosophy in the USA acquired a taste for formalization that is alien to Wittgensteinian thought. Noam Chomsky’s theoretical linguistics made a great impact on American thought in philosophy of language, and his preoccupation with rules of depth-grammar deeply buried in the unconscious mind, of universal grammar, and of the role of what he called the mind-brain are diametrically opposed to everything Wittgenstein had to say on the nature of language and linguistic representation. Wittgenstein showed that it is unintelligible that there be rules embedded in the brain, or that the brain might be said to follow rules. In his later work, he was wholly sceptical about there being any such thing as depth-grammar, let alone as universal grammar.

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A fourth factor was the invention of computers. Computers mesmerise us, and tempt us to suppose that computers are intelligent, that they can think. This has led to wild speculation concerning ourselves. Are we biological computers? Is our brain analogous to a computer? This too clashes with Wittgenstein’s thought. He argued that there can be no thought without experience, and computers do not experience anything. Thought, one might say, is essentially a biological phenomenon.

It is sad to see these trends in contemporary philosophy. Those who by-pass Wittgenstein do so to their own detriment, for they are neglecting the most original philosopher of our times. But I am confident that his star will rise again.

Interview by Charles J. Styles

September 14, 2018

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Peter Hacker

Peter Hacker

Professor P.M.S. Hacker is currently Emeritus Research Fellow at St. John's College, University of Oxford. He is one of the most notable authorities on Wittgenstein and a distinguished historian of the analytic tradition in philosophy. He is author of the four-volume Analytical Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations, the first two volumes co-authored with G. P. Baker (Blackwell, 1980-96) and of Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 1996). He has also written and lectured extensively on the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind, as well as the relationship between philosophy and neuroscience.

Peter Hacker

Peter Hacker

Professor P.M.S. Hacker is currently Emeritus Research Fellow at St. John's College, University of Oxford. He is one of the most notable authorities on Wittgenstein and a distinguished historian of the analytic tradition in philosophy. He is author of the four-volume Analytical Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations, the first two volumes co-authored with G. P. Baker (Blackwell, 1980-96) and of Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 1996). He has also written and lectured extensively on the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind, as well as the relationship between philosophy and neuroscience.