Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote his Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology about thirty-five years ago. Only now have they been published, rather late in a long sequence of posthumous books. The two volumes are successive attempts to sort out the same ideas. He was never fully satisfied by them, but they may well turn out to be his most enduring secondary work, fair companions to the only books that Wittgenstein did cast into final form: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, finished in 1918, and Part I of Philosophical Investigations, done by 1945.
Wittgenstein’s reflections on the human mind are central to his later philosophy. He pairs off quite nicely with Descartes, his predecessor by exactly three centuries, and the founder of philosophical psychology. Although great philosophers never come two of a kind, these men are strikingly alike. The similarity may seem a bit surprising, since Wittgenstein is often presented as the very opposite of Descartes, and even as the man who brought the Cartesian era of philosophy to an end.
Each man chose to be an émigré. The Viennese Wittgenstein made his base at Cambridge University while the French Descartes worked in Holland. Each lived in the midst of a foreign language but wrote most of his thoughts in his native tongue. Each soldiered in yet other countries. Both not only settled abroad but also set off for very strange parts. Wittgenstein traveled to the Soviet Union in 1935, possibly intending to become a doctor in Siberia. Descartes finally accepted the bidding of Queen Christina and went off to Sweden to die of the cold.
Both philosophers were obsessive about their work, holding it back for years. Each could be furious if any of it was leaked prematurely to the public. Their eccentricities were legion, but each had a personality that dominated, nay, obsessed, close friends. Both men told us never to hurry with their work. The few pages of a Cartesian Meditation are to be reread on successive days. Only when you have made them your own should you move on to the next thought. Wittgenstein: “My work must be read slowly.” He ensured that if you do read it, you do so slowly. Eclectics can dip into this or that choice fragment speedily enough, but if you read the matter systematically you have to take your time.
Wittgenstein wrote in numbered paragraphs, a few of which pursue the same topic and then may abruptly switch to something different. Even a single paragraph may be a series of quick exchanges between Wittgenstein and an interlocutor. A topic that has been dropped will reappear many paragraphs later. Strange possibilities are described and the same phenomenon will be held up again and again to be glimpsed from new perspectives. This style fits the content, for Wittgenstein’s thought keeps on illustrating related themes from successive vantage points, shooting off, recollecting, transcending, backsliding. It is not unlike a mind that talks to itself in a half dozen different conversations at once, but the successive paragraphs are…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.