Monday, November 30, 2009

The inspiration of Wittgenstein

When I set myself to write my next blog and I do not know what to write about, the Essays of Michel de Montaigne are always a good source for inspiration. However, there is another source that is actually as good as Montaigne’s book. This is the Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein. In fact, I had read Wittgenstein already long before I had ever heard of Montaigne and, unlike Montaigne, Wittgenstein has had a direct and an indirect influence on my philosophical thinking and work. I can best formulate the difference between Montaigne and Wittgenstein for me in this way: I read Montaigne’s Essays like a novel, but I read Wittgenstein’s work like a scientific treatise.
Wittgenstein’s contribution to philosophy cannot be summarized in a few statements. But what has always interested me is the importance he has given to the place of language in science and life. For Wittgenstein, language was not simply an instrument for expressing our thoughts, but language has an important influence on the way we think. This made him one of the ancestors of the so-called linguistic turn, the idea that language constitutes our reality and that it is actually the foundation of all our knowledge. This relieves the older idea, which goes back to Immanuel Kant, that the foundation of our knowledge is to be found in consciousness. It is also contrary to the idea, defended by Karl Popper and especially by his follower Hans Albert in discussion with Karl-Otto Apel in Germany, that there is no foundation of knowledge at all but that scientific method is characterized by a continuous criticism. Formulated in contradictory terms: criticism is the foundation of science.
Despite that language was fundamental for Wittgenstein’s thinking and analyzing, in the end he did not found our thinking on language. We can try to give any explanation we like by going to their linguistic sources, be it of scientific facts, be it of facts of life, but such an explanation means nothing to us, when we do not know how to use the explanation, namely how to act on it. In this way, Wittgenstein formulated a fundamental insight, for isn’t it so that there is no longer life where there is no action? Isn’t it so that, if we want to give a foundation to man in all her or his aspects (physical, mental, historical, and who knows what more) it must be action? And then I do not mean only action in the sense of moving arms and legs and other body parts, but I think of action in its widest sense. Also our speaking is an acting, as has been shown in such a powerful way by J.L. Austin, as well as our thinking is.

How inspiring can Wittgenstein be, considering that this was only a comment on the first of the 693 philosophical investigations in the first part of his book.

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