Practicing Wittgenstein and Updating Spinoza

I have been studying Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations over the past few days and trying to come to grips with its method and arguments. Yet, I was never given a proper introduction to his writings in any of my philosophy courses. I read his first major book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, as an undergrad (or tried–I had to skip the formal logic sections), but I only read through the Philosophical Investigations for the first time late last summer and fall. It is a unique book in its style, posing a large number of connecting claims, but without clearly providing an argument. 

His style has been described as one of unraveling or demonstrating problems conventional modes of doing philosophy and within various philosophical claims. One of his most infamous claims is that philosophy cannot be done, more or less. Our language is nowhere near as pure as it needs to be in order for us to describe, or even think, of a proper philosophical problem. “For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday,” he states in his Philosophical Investigations (section 39). 

I see Wittgenstein’s project in the Philosophical Investigations as essentially being an updated Humean-Kantian critique of our modes of reason, but taking it even further. If Hume’s skepticism demonstrated the impossibility of engaging in a metaphysics of some pure reality, and Kant demonstrated that a metaphysics is possible only as an examination of how a mind necessarily constructs a conceivable and perceivable world, then Wittgenstein is demonstrating how the ways in which we use language determine the sorts of things we can and cannot say— and when it comes to metaphysics or other philosophical problems, it turns out we can’t do much. His first book, the idiosyncratic Tractatus,” performed a similar task to Kant’s work: creating a system or framework to show how language is used. But his Philosophical Investigations has a contrary goal: to show us not only that no ethical or metaphysical system can be spoken of with any grounding, but also that we can’t speak about philosophy at all without speaking non-sense. All that philosophy can do is show us how our language fails to talk about these things.

To consider the implications of this anti-philosophy claim, it is critical that we understand “philosophy” and “ethics” not merely as they are discussed within the discipline of philosophy, but any time a philosophical or ethical claim is made. What counts as a philosophical or ethical claim? Many things, in fact, within our day-to-day living. Anything that depends on a metaphysical distinction, or a moral claim that depends on concepts of good or evil. Take for example an argument about abortion: “the child’s life begins at conception.” Or the contrary claim, “the fetus is not a person.” What do we mean by person? What do we mean by ‘life?” Both of these arguments for and against abortion depend on metaphysical and moral distinctions, and both are providing a status to things that mean different things depending on how the word is used. There is no “real” thing called “personhood” or “life.” And so we may agree with one argument on aesthetic grounds, or make some initial arbitrary assumptions about ethical entities, but we can’t soundly claim there is some non-arbitrary ethical grounding for either side of the ethical argument. (That’s not to say arguments can’t be made soundly, but they can’t take the ethical route.)

In short, Wittgenstein’s Investigations would mean that philosophical systems like Spinoza’s do not carry any weight, and do not, in fact, mean anything. 

Yet, in my attempt to write my philosophy, I cannot help but to describe and understand the world in a way that looks distinctly Spinozian. 

I am not striving to think like Spinoza. The reason I am so fascinated with Spinoza is that his Ethics is so in line with my own way of thought. I think about something, believe it is my own idea that I haven’t encountered before, write it down, and later will read something deep within the pages of Spinoza’s Ethics that mirrors my statements. I did in fact read the whole Ethics 13 years ago, but I can’t say I retained much. Perhaps it altered my mind so deeply that I don’t need to recall Spinoza: I simply think my own thoughts, and it is Spinoza, or some version of it.
Wittgenstein is a skeptic. And I consider myself a skeptic as well. Spinoza is not a skeptic. Yes, he was critical about a lot of things, and was skeptical about plenty of traditional ideas. But he was not skeptical about our ability to reason about nature in order to know God and acquire true knowledge (or some measure of it). In other words, he was not a philosophical skeptic, who had some anti-systematic system to demonstrate the difficulty of doing metaphysics. Spinoza was in many ways the opposite of what he sometimes appeared– an atheist obsessed with God, a denier of free will who attempted to show the way to freedom, a fierce critic of traditional religion who considered Jesus as a teacher of the Word of God–but I can only accept that he is a skeptic in some heavily contextualized way. 

To come back around: my goal is to write a philosophy book–even if it is bad–that lays out my view of the world, for the sake of understanding my own mind better, and because I believe it will be of value to others. But my view is so very Spinozistic. I also am working with about 350 years of additional philosophy, science, and culture, including some monumental criticisms from philosophers about how we do philosophy. 

My question is, if we apply a Wittgensteinian critique to my Spinozistic framework, what do we get?

The Wittgenstein scholar David Stern argues for a three-stage method that Wittgenstein utilizes again and again throughout the PI. 

  First, a classic or current position is given. This could be a quote from Augustine, or a paraphrase of a common philosophical position or an interpretation of a naive position.

Second, Wittgentein builds a scenario directly from the description in which the description is accurate. However, the scenario is always bizarre. In some cases, Stern describes it as a Samuel Beckett-like absurdist scenario. It seems Wittgenstein does this both to highlight how the previous position is distinct, and to show how it is inaccurate.

Third, Wittgenstein’s obversation that the position of the first stage is inadequate, and why. 

 It is important to note that there are many different readings by various, and this is just one. The likely reason for this plethora of interpretations is that Wittgenstein does not use a single voice. It is dialectical in its nature, with one voice positing some traditional position, then a critique stimulating a review of that position. But these voices are not labeled, and perhaps none of them can actually be taken as Wittgenstein’s “final” voice. Perhaps the point is that the closest to “truth” we can get is simply in showing how all the various positions fail, are incomplete, or only complete I specific situations. 

So, I wonder, what would it be like to present my philosophy not in the axioms and propositions of Spinoza’s Ethics, but in the dialectical manner of Wittgenstein’s Philsophical Investigations? What are our current naive positions? How do we understand the world? How is our understanding of the world prohibiting us from other understandings of the world? 

I wish my book not to be a lecture, but a companion to recognizing our ignorance, the illusions that all our thought depends on, and the ability to see the world in a variety of contrary ways simultaneously or in succession…and as a result, bringing us closer to the truth, though we can never obtain it.

~ by Kamran Swanson on May 25, 2016.

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