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Wittgenstein the Psychologist

Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology

by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Volume I edited by G.E.M. Anscombe, and G.H. von Wright, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, Volume II edited by G.H. von Wright, and Heikki Nyman, translated by C.G. Luckhardt, by M.A.E. Aue
University of Chicago Press (facing German and English translation), Volume II: 253 pp., $27.50

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 the subtly organized, intensely disciplined product of unending toil. Both Descartes and Wittgenstein are remarkably graceful authors, graceful not only in the seemingly relaxed flow of words, but also in the meticulous sequencing of ideas that lies beneath the charm of the sentences.

It is a commonplace that the “philosophical psychology” of Descartes and that of Wittgenstein are totally different, the one the very negation of the other. That is half right and half wrong. What’s right is that Descartes starts from inside himself while Wittgenstein begins in the world of human communication. The Cartesian philosophy says that I best know my own mind. All my knowledge is based upon my private experiences, sensations, and thoughts. Thought is the movement of ideas in the mind. Wittgenstein holds in contrast that shared practices, actions, reactions, and interactions among people provide the foothold upon which all such self-description of our mental life must rest. Language is first of all public and firmly rooted in what we do together. He rightly resented casual readers who would dismiss him as a behaviorist:

Then is it misleading [Wittgenstein asks himself] to speak of man’s soul, or of his spirit? So little misleading, that it is quite intelligible if I say “My soul is tired, not just my mind.” But don’t you at least say that everything that can be expressed by means of the word “soul,” can also be expressed somehow by means of words for the corporeal? I do not say that. But if it were so—what would it amount to? For the words, and also what we point to in explaining them, are nothing but instruments, and everything depends on their use.

To ask whether Descartes believes in the human soul, while Wittgenstein does not, is simply to put a bad question. “Do I believe in a soul in someone else, when I look into his eyes with astonishment and delight?” Wittgenstein thought that it is not a question of belief founded on evidence at all.

Descartes held that mind and body are distinct substances and wondered how they interact. That doctrine, called dualism, has obsessed much Western philosophy. It will be said that Wittgenstein was no dualist, thus emphasizing his fundamental difference from his predecessor. I do not agree. The contrast is, I think, wrongly understood. Wittgenstein certainly did not hold that mind and body are two “substances,” or that “mind” names a special kind of thing. But in many essentials, he is just as much a dualist as Descartes. Both hold that psychology requires forms of description and methodology quite different from those called for in natural science. Reflection on thinking is not remotely like the study of the inhuman world of spatial, mechanical objects.

Descartes took a word—cogitare, penser, “think”—and gave it an extended sense in which it captured all the disparate but roughly mental activities such as hoping and remembering and seeing and hurting. Where Descartes unifies, Wittgenstein mercilessly divides. Something different may have to be said about each mentalistic verb. Hence there is a long sequence of items that jut out in an index to the two volumes of Philosophy of Psychology: believing, calculating, expecting, experiencing, feeling, intending, and so on. Precisely such a list might be used to elucidate Descartes’s portmanteau term “thinking.” Both philosophers understood that descriptions of these items will be unrelated to anything that goes on in the material, space-occupying organs of the body such as the brain. At the same time, Wittgenstein rejects the very possibility of any doctrine about Cartesian thought-in-general.

Before looking at Wittgenstein’s descriptions of the mental, one needs to place them within the rest of his work. Three decades separate the completion of his Tractatus and the final form of Part I of Philosophical Investigations. These masterpieces are usually said to represent his early and his later philosophy. Both are worth calling philosophies of language. In the Cartesian epoch, language had been a wonderful system of signs for conveying thoughts from one mind to another, but language was always secondary to ideas in the mind. There came at last the strange reversal; language became a necessarily public institution within which human selves are formed and by which people constitute the world they live in. The switch from the primacy of private thought to that of public discourse is not the work of Wittgenstein. In 1868, C.S. Peirce, founder of pragmatism, had published in a St. Louis philosophy magazine the remarkable sentence: “My language is the sum total of myself.” That was twenty-one years before Wittgenstein was born, and the same thoughts were circulating elsewhere about that time.

Wittgenstein no more invented the idea of human beings and their world being constituted in language-than Descartes invented the mind-body problem. Both philosophers are historical personages whose writings turn the claptrap of their time into monuments. Insofar as Wittgenstein had an earlier and a later philosophy, his monuments face away from each other. The Tractatus had a vision of a single role for language, while the Investigations tells of innumerable language games each of which is embedded in its own web of activities.

The Tractatus is written as if language had but one function: representing the world. That creates a problem to which the book addresses itself. How is it possible to represent a nonlinguistic world in words? The opening sentences begin the answer. “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” When the penknife is to the left of the snuffbox, we tend to think of two things, the knife and the box. We think of a world made up of things like penknives that can be arranged in various ways. Not so, says Wittgenstein: the world consists simply of a set of facts, like the fact that the knife is to the left of the box. This is not to deny that there are things, such as penknives. It says only that the totality of facts is all there is to the world. Once that totality is given, you add nothing more by saying, “and there are things too, such as snuffboxes.” This idea of the world begins to explain how representative language is possible. Propositions represent the world by picturing the structure of the facts. This idea has been called “the picture of theory of meaning.”

A theory of language as essentially representative excludes an enormous amount of discourse. Much of life most dear to us, including beauty, philosophy, and moral worth, has nothing to do with representation. Although values can be lived, acted out, or displayed, they cannot, on Wittgenstein’s early account, literally be stated. This is not for the simple-minded reason later expounded by positivists, that values are mere expressions of feeling, and thus neither true nor false. On the contrary, we can represent facts about feeling just as well as any other facts, and there are truths and falsehoods about the inner world just as much as the external one. Wittgenstein’s difficulty is that neither a value nor a philosophical thesis is a representation at all, and so is not something that can be “said.” It is only something that can be “shown” by saying or doing something else. The Tractatus is written as a sequence of numbered propositions. It concludes by showing its own impossibility. This very philosophy cannot be a series of propositions at all. It, too, can at best be shown. The book ends by recommending silence.

Among the many themes in that strange and powerful book, I would here emphasize only its unified conception of the role of language: representation of facts by propositions. That vision is abandoned in the later philosophy. Wittgenstein came to see that language is not one monolithic system of representations for picturing reality. Instead it is composed of myriad fragments that loosely overlap and intersect. Most of these are not used to represent anything. We are told to look at little bits of real or invented discourse to see what nonlinguistic activity—what social context or use—must accompany each one in order for it to make sense. A case in point of this approach is the way in which Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology replaces the Cartesian concept of “thinking” by detailed study of lots of different mentalistic verbs—introspecting, calculating, remembering, intending—each of which demands its own social setting.

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