Thursday, February 11, 2010

"In Wittgenstein, I discovered a voice that advised me not to be endlessly detained these questions"

Giles Fraser has been explaining over at the Guardian why Wittgenstein appeals so strongly to some religious types (like Sam Norton, I suppose - what do you think Sam?). Here is part 1 of his three part essay.

Back in the early 80's, I spend many an afternoon in a cramped and stuffy office in King's College, London, with an informally gathered group of mostly graduate students, going through Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations paragraph by paragraph, line by line. It was often terribly slow going. We might ponder two or three sentences for a couple of weeks, coming back to the same point several times. It felt a bit like Bible study. Some might have wondered how much was being achieved in this group or what the point of it all was. But for me it was absorbing, thrilling, adventurous. My eyes were opened and my life was changed.

The professor at the centre of this little group was the genial Texan philosopher Norman Malcolm, a lifelong friend of Wittgenstein and one of his most notable students. Part of the excitement – though nobody would have been quite so crass as to admit it – was to be learning philosophy at just one degree of separation from the master himself. But that alone was not what made this group keen to keep coming back. Many of us felt that something different was going on, that we were learning a new way of doing philosophy. The big idea was that philosophy wasn't so much a question of mastering arguments – though the they did form a small part. There wasn't any great sense that we were deriving firm conclusions from the logical combination of indubitable premises. Rather it was as if we were being inducted into a certain sort of technique, almost a style of dealing with philosophical problems. Philosophy was more like therapy, an attempt to understand and deal with the very heart of human puzzlement about various things. Why, we asked, do certain sorts of situations or ideas seem odd to us and what do we hope to achieve by throwing philosophy at them?


Continues here

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4 comments:

Sam Norton said...

I left a comment on his part 2 - to the effect that he was making Wittgenstein seem too close to the Vienna Circle - but overall it seemed a straightforward exposition to me. For more on why I love Wittgenstein go here.

Tony Lloyd said...

Disclaimer: I haven't actually read Philosophical Investigations. I've read books on it (e.g. Ayer's) and I've picked it up in bookshops and flicked through it but never actually tackled it.

So I may be mis(non)reading Wittgenstein but isn't there a trap that Fraser, "in very real sense", falls into?

Doesn't the idea of religion as a different language game mean, well, that it's a different language game? It's not a declarative language game, a critical language game or a problem solving language game?

The idea that we befuddle ourselves with our language and need philosophical therapy to get out of the mess is fine. But wouldn't religion-taken-as-an-actual-description of the world be such a mess that we need to sort out?

Paul P. Mealing said...

If one takes religion as a psychological experience rather than an epistemological methodology for understanding the world, then Wittgenstein's use of the term, therapy, actually makes sense.

Regards, Paul.

pikeamus Mike said...

I did find the last comment on the article very amusing.

"'But I could not give myself over to belief: too many philosophical problems blocked my path, too many questions about what sort of ontological commitment was being made by claims to God's existence. In Wittgenstein, I discovered a voice that advised me not to be endlessly detained these questions.'

In other words, ignore the fact that it's blatant nonsense and believe it anyway. It's more important to believe there's a plesiosaur in the loch than to actually find one (and you know, in many ways I think there is a plesiosaur in there- a plesiosaur of the mind and the spirit. Obviously not a big, bearded plesiosaur in the sky who can send us to heaven or hell... hang on, that can't be right, I've got that mixed up somewhere. Give me a minute... )"