Wittgenstein & The Priority of Everyday Language
by Andreas Saugstad
The Austrian thinker Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is one the greatest philosophers in history. His approach to philosophy is characterized by an emphasis on language. According to Wittgenstein, philosophical problems arise because of misuse of language, and it is only when we understand everyday language that these questions may be dealt with.
Wittgenstein focused on everyday language as the basis of human rationality, and thought that some philosophers created intellectual diseases because of misuse of language. Wittgenstein wanted to develop a new approach to ancient philosophical questions through what he called “grammatical investigations”, i.e. an investigation of the actual and ongoing use of language.
Questions of Philosophy
The questions raised by Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibniz, Descartes, Hume, Kant and others, are questions that must be dealt with by giving a description of our language-games. True philosophy reminds us of what everyone really knows: it pays attention to actual use of language, and thus it dissolves problems, rather than constructing complex systems. Questions like “what is existing?,” “what gives language meaning?,” “do other minds exist?,” “what is knowledge?,” “what is it to understand something?” may all be dealt with through the language-game approach, according to Wittgenstein. Philosophers and others do, according to the Austrian philosopher, have a tendency of creating conceptual confusions. Philosophers tend to ask somewhat strange questions, like “do I have any knowledge at all?,” “are there other minds than mine?,” and these questions, Wittgenstein argues, are the results of misuse of language.
Philosophical problems arise when “language goes on holiday,” he says. But Wittgenstein’s new approach cannot give us anything new, “it leaves everything as it is.” Philosophy thus becomes a “therapy,” a conceptual therapy where the most important method for healing is appeal to everyday language.
The Importance of Everyday
Wittgenstein’s project is to bring words from an over-intellectualist use, back to their everyday use. He preferred reading detective magazines to Aristotle, and he believed that everyday use of language is superior or at least more important to that of professional philosophers.
But why should we not use language in new and exciting ways? Does it not belong to human nature to ask new questions? Do we not all tend to sometimes ask ourselves, “do I really know anything?” and wonder about what is and what is not. May there not – pace Wittgenstein – be other language-games than those of regular life? May we not be creative and use language in new ways, asking those serious questions that philosophers want to deal with? The problem in Wittgenstein’s thought is that he views seem to lead to conformity. It seems to be an important feature of true intellectual abilities that one is capable of constructing new perspectives on reality and asking and trying to answer new and original questions. Wittgenstein thus seems to be an anti-intellectualist, who prefers the language of the ordinary to that of the philosophical genius.
It was Kant who claimed that the genius could think according new rules and representations, and that originality was the first and most important aspect of genius. Wittgenstein, however, does not allow for such geniuses to do philosophy. In philosophy one cannot break the ordinary principles of language – the rules of rationality are found in everyday life, in routines, in practical behavioral techniques. Wittgenstein grew up in Vienna in the beginning of the twentieth century, a culture where the genius was regarded with enormous respect. This led to the suicide of the young writer Otto Weininger, who committed suicide in Vienna in 1903. Weininger, who believed in “greatness or nothingness,” arranged for his suicide in Beethoven’s former house, and it is highly probable that he killed himself because of the standards he held, but could not manifest, in his own life.
Wittgenstein admired Weininger, and in a listing of those who had influenced him the most, he included Weininger (among the philosophers Frege, Russell and Schopenhauer). But the later Wittgenstein did not seek to develop a theory of genius. Instead of focusing on new and original ways of approaching the world, he emphasized the need for everyday language, for conventions, for practices, and that the common behavior of humans in different cultures, is the basis of that which we call rationality. When philosophers try to create new rules, they may, according to Kant, be creative geniuses, but Wittgenstein focuses on the nonsense of such an activity. “Look, don’t think!” he says to the philosopher – look at the everyday use of language, how it is all working among ordinary people.
The creative imagination of the philosopher, like that of Leibniz, Hegel or Berkeley, thus becomes a potential enemy because it may lead to nonsensical metaphysical constructions. There is no specific philosophical language-game, or no new philosophical way of using words – at least not something that Wittgenstein would embrace.
It seems to me that Wittgenstein saw things in a different way than many others. In that sense he actually was a genuis – he saw things from a new perspective. His philosophical work may be regarded as a highly original contribution, even though it emphasizes ordinary language. But his own philosophical genius is probably the only one he would accept.
Most people think of life as problematic, and philosophy is perhaps a form of life where one tries to cope with this. Schopenhauer, for instance, saw that life is problemtic, and decided to spend his thinking about it. Nietzsche’s life was similar – for Nietzsche life seems to have been a battle where the winner is the one who constructs new perspectives on reality in order to cope with it. One of the reasons why philosophy is so popular these days, is perhaps that it may be deliberating, and in this activity many find themselves and get to use their intellectual abilities. Philosophy satisfies man’s search for meaning, and some even believe to have found it!
But for Wittgenstein, the situation seems to have been different. In Wittgenstein’s world the problem was philosophy and the solution was everyday life, not the other way around as some seem to have believed. The young Wittgenstein thought of logic as a problem, and his teacher Bertrand Russell said of him, that he was so committed that he “must understand or die.” The problems of logic and philosophy of language bothered Wittgenstein’s great mind so much, that Russell feared his suicide. When Wittgenstein had finished his first great book, the Tractatus, he left philosophy in order to become a schoolteacher in Austria. He lived a practical, down-to-earth life, and was an elementary school teacher, with limited contact with the cultural elité in Vienna.
But Wittgenstein later returned to philosophy, and in 1929 he came back to Cambridge where he had spent five terms as an undergraduate. He had now realized that his first book did not solve the problems after all. Some years after his return he wrote: “The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions that bring itself in question.”
Wittgenstein fought against problems and the need for absolute peace of mind, and a true method for solving the problems once and for all was needed. This method he found in everyday language. He wrote: “Philosophy may in no way interfere with the real/ actual/ use of language…with what is really said: it can in the end only describe it.”
A New Life
Wittgenstein thought of resigning as professor of philosophy at Cambridge, and with the help from his friend the economist John M. Keynes, he tried to get a job in the Soviet Union. Wittgenstein wanted to work on a farm, maybe to become a part of Russian everyday life, but in the Soviet Union they only offered him a position in philosophy, first at Kazan University, then at the University of Moscow. Wittgenstein returned to England. In 1947 he resigned as professor in philosophy and eventually left Cambridge.
He did not appreciate academic life. Undoubtedly he was a genius. But Wittgenstein, I think, saw things from a different perspective than me and many others. It is life, not philosophy itself that may be the problem. Philosophy is therapy, but curing the wounds of life, not injuries from some sort of metaphysical activity.
Wittgenstein’s friend Francis Skinner was advised by Wittgenstein to quit his career in mathematics and philosophy and instead work at a factory in Cambridge.
What Wittgenstein did not see, or at least did not say explicitly in his works, was that developing novel and original perspectives, violating the ordinary rules of language, transcending the immanent, is therapy. Ordinary life is difficult and writing and philosophy are two solutions.