There's been a lot of skeptical questions recently, about knowledge, god, probability, other minds, all sorts of crazy stuff (I'm still waiting for "nothing is true")

Can we conclude from Wittgenstein that all philosophy shows just as well that all philosophy is nonsense, by which I mean show that all philosophy fails to "picture" any state of affairs, no philosophy has all its names map onto simple objects?

That seems like the ultimate skepticism to me.

“most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical” (TLP 4.003). Is, then, philosophy doomed to be nonsense (unsinnig), or, at best, senseless (sinnlos) when it does logic, but, in any case, meaningless? What is left for the philosopher to do, if traditional, or even revolutionary, propositions of metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics cannot be formulated in a sensical manner? The reply to these two questions is found in Wittgenstein’s characterization of philosophy: philosophy is not a theory, or a doctrine, but rather an activity. It is an activity of clarification (of thoughts), and more so, of critique (of language). Described by Wittgenstein, it should be the philosopher’s routine activity: to react or respond to the traditional philosophers’ musings by showing them where they go wrong, using the tools provided by logical analysis. In other words, by showing them that (some of) their propositions are nonsense.

-from the SEP article on Ludwig Wittgenstein, section 2.3: The Nature of Philosophy

Even some of his own work "must be recognized as nonsense", presumably in its entirety. Does it show that in a better (or worse) way than a quote from a sitcom or my undergraduate essay? Any philosophical basis to the claim that they are less aesthetically pleasing is, I'd have guessed, arguably nonsense.

It does sound ludicrous, and I'm not rhetorically asking the difference between my undergraduate essay and his Tractatus, but where does that difference lie? I would have assumed some philosophy does it more clearly (and intentionally even), but is that all?

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    – Geoffrey Thomas
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  • You would be mistaken to suppose that all philosophy is nonsense- only some of it is. Nov 28, 2023 at 22:49

3 Answers 3


The concept of nonsense being itself philosophical, then if we applied this critique to itself, the accusation would redound upon itself, and fail for all that. Now, you might object that the concept of nonsense is not philosophical, but per Wittgensteinianism it is, because it is distinguished from senselessness, here, and this senseless/nonsensical distinction is metaphilosophical, which means that it is a moment of philosophical self-reflection (i.e. philosophy reflecting upon itself).

But one might go on instead to ask about myriads of popular questions in philosophy. Popularity can come and go, so too much can easily be made of this or that (in)famous question seeming silly, absurd, ridiculous, etc. Are most philosophical questions silly? Is silliness subjective? Note, again, that even those two queries are philosophical, and might be silly themselves (for all that). They might seem silly, that is, if it seems obvious that some more "commonplace" philosophy queries are silly. It is silly to ask about silliness, then. Or is it? Is it silly to ask about the silliness of silliness? (Hopefully I am triggering a bit of semantic satiation...) Is there a (philosophical!) distinction between the silly, the absurd, and the ridiculous? What about the weird and the bizarre? If a philosophical question is bizarre, then to some it might go on to seem funny, but even what is funny on one level can be taken seriously on another. I will remind our general audience of the passage in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose when the detective-monk is spoken of as seeming to joke when he is being very serious, and seeming to be serious when he is earnestly joking.

Addendum: reflective equilibrium's discontents

Only about two days ago, the SEP article on reflective equilibrium was updated by the older version being replaced by a new one. I will quote at length from a section addressing criticism of the method of reflective equilibrium, which is so preeminent especially in modern ethical philosophy, as "empty":

By this point the critic may be exasperated. If you identify a problem with someone’s way of doing philosophy, and they agree that it’s a problem, you might expect them to change how they do it. But the adherent of wide reflective equilibrium accepts the criticism but maintains their method, saying that they have adopted the criticism within the method. To critics this suggests that the method is “close to vacuous” (Singer 2005: 349), absorbing methodological controversies rather than adjudicating them (McPherson 2015: 661; Paulo 2020: 346; de Maagt 2017: 458). It just takes us

back to the usual philosophical argument about the merits and demerits of various methods of argument and of various theories. The method of reflective equilibrium is then not a method in moral philosophy at all. (Raz 1982: 309)

Defenders of wide reflective equilibrium describe it in similar terms to the critics, while rejecting their negative evaluation. Its ability to absorb apparent rivals is seen as a feature, not a bug:

This charge of emptiness seems to me to be largely correct, but nonetheless mistaken in one important respect, and therefore not as damaging as it sounds. The charge is largely correct because the search for wide reflective equilibrium, as Rawls describes it, allows for what might have been seen as alternative methods of justification to be incorporated within it. … What the method of reflective equilibrium prescribes is, so to speak, a level playing field of intuitive justification on which principles and judgments of all levels of generality must compete for our allegiance. It thus allows all possible sources of justificatory force to be considered. But the method is not vacuous because it is incompatible with some views about these sources. It is incompatible, first, with the idea that any particular class of judgments or principles can be singled out in advance of this process as justified on some other basis and, second, with the idea that any class of considered judgments should be left out of this process. (Scanlon 2003: 151).

I will leave it to the audience to decide whether the above dialectic is relevant to the OP question.


"My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright."

-6.54, TLP

He describes his own work in the TLP as potentially being nonsensical here, but, simultaneously being useful. So, what purposes does he have? Where does his ladder go? He gave another powerful metaphor:

"What is your aim in philosophy? — To shew the fly the way out of the bottle."

PI §309

In particular, we need to consider the context he was speaking in, which was against a prevailing view by Russell and others, that language is just bad math, and if only it could be used more precisely all problems would be solved. That is an implicitly mathematical-Platonist view, which assumes there is something fundamental to language as to math, that's to be found in the ideal use of language, like 'pure' logic.

Instead, he draws attention to the details of how language is actually used:

"In this sort of predicament, always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good", for instance)? From what sort of examples? In what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings."

PI §77

And he says very pointedly I think

"The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing work."

PI §132

This is nothing to do with scepticism, but about a shift from seeking for what language supposedly is, to what it does. In this light we can understand that first quote from the TLP, as undercutting the idea that the endeavour has been to lay out a definitive model of language. Instead it aims to capture a mode of language at work, the picture mode. But the point isn't to carry the ladder around forever as a status symbol once used, it is to understand how we do actually use the thing when it is needed, and can discard that mode when it is not.

"And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take it's place. And this description gets it light, that is to say it's purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved rather by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognise these workings; in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language."

PI §109

He pictures an essentially therapeutic paradigm:

"It is not our aim to refine or complete the system of rules for use of our words in unheard of ways.

For the clarity we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means the philosophical complications should completely dissappear.

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 which bring itself in to question.- Instead we now demonstrate a method, by examples; and the series of examples can be broken off. Problems are solved (difficulties eliminated), not a single problem.

There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.

PI §133

Or more pithily:

"The philosopher treats a question, like an illness."

PI §255

This is very like Zen, where the problems of overthinking are not to be solved by more thinking, but by thinking just enough so we can put the thinking down. So, you can say: this is showing rather than saying, that nonsense isn't in the words, but in the uses we put them to.

"Don't for heaven's sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense."

Culture & Value, a selection from the personal notes of Ludwig Wittgenstein, p.56e

I am by no means the first to point this out the Zen-style quality of Wittgenstein's tactics. I love this essay, which identifies a common thread among philosophers including Wittgenstein with his ladder, of using words to direct attention beyond their limitations: Nāgārjuna, Nietzsche, and Rorty’s Strange Looping Trick

It is obviously necessary that language is able to complicate itself. I like Hofstadter's picture in 'Surfaces and essences: Analogy as the fuel and fire of thinking' which I think exactly inherits Wittgenstein's programme, and recognises a retrospectively obvious but deep truth, that language changes, and it's capabilities compound.

There's also the idea of philosophical closure as a psychological habit, or maybe need relating to simplifying the world, of saying for example, let's just accept this as a true definition so we can proceed. If we go too far without recognising our assumptions could be questioned though, we can stop recognising our opportunity for being open to the world, for engaging with new language games.

There is this tension in Wittgenstein's work between his declared aim of making problems evaporate, with what has been gained afterwards that couldn't have come from simply not engaging with the problem, with philosophy. What has shifted?

In this continued attack on assumed verities, on assumptions about how language works and what it is, an epistemic openess is illustrated, justified, and enacted. Similarly to Cartwright in 'How The Laws of Physics Lie', understanding the limits of our process don't diminish what we can do, it just adds warranted humility about them, and embeds a turning towards recognising we may come to rearrange what we know in ways we can't yet imagine.

"At the core of all well-founded belief lies belief that is unfounded."

On Certainty

We have experimental results, and we have hypothesis generation. We have states of affairs, and then we have the embodied process of situating ourselves towards them - a term I like for this is creating a 'salience landscape'. The 'answer' is to turn away from questions for their own sake, and towards the world such that questions serve the process of living:

"For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot be expressed. The riddle does not exist. If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered. Skepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked. For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said. We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem."

TLP 6.52

I take this to be understood as leaving science and math to those disciplines, but stating that philosophy is about arranging what is known, situating yourself to it - and then just getting on with living, as far as possible. Which of course is just what he did, going into designing a house, being a schoolteacher, and aiming to just put the philosophy down once he felt he'd sufficiently untangled it.

I see great continuity with the history of philosophy in that, as the height of the practice not being in knowledge but in wisdom: in correctly situating yourself towards life so as to live well, and that means with cultivating the skill of solving apparent lose-lose dilemmas in productive creative ways that manifest a security towards recognising the epistemic openess of the world, and our capacity for creative language and thought.

Whereof we cannot speak, thereof new language games may render intelligible.

"What can be shown, cannot be said."

TLP 4.1212

That is, we don't create the new knowledge, the concept, but enact it, show it's meaningfulness by how we situate ourselves towards it.


I admire Wittgenstein's brutal honesty in renouncing his former work. As a lifelong sceptic, I also admire his scepticism. It seems to me that at least some philosophy is nonsense or bullshit. I would include the later Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, in the portion that is not. "Don't ask for the meaning, ask for the use." He said that philosophy is not a theory but an activity. To paraphrase him, I see philosophy as going down into the abyss each day to bring up some truth. To be clear, my view is that Wittgenstein later promotes the theory that philosophy is a practical discipline.

  • Do give examples of his renouncing. As a follower of the Resolute, I cannot agree with your portrayal. See eg the discussion on here: 'Relationship between early Wittgenstein and late Wittgenstein' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/84657/…
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 29, 2023 at 17:10
  • In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein refers to the Tractatus as the old way of thinking and goes on to criticise many of the ideas developed in it. I agree with his view that the tools of language are fundamentally simple, and that some philosophers misuse language to ask meaningless questions. I see a lot of that on this exchange. We must agree to disagree.
    – Meanach
    Nov 29, 2023 at 17:49
  • I don't disagree with the core of your answer otherwise. But you could make your case in LW's own words, and that would be a better answer.
    – CriglCragl
    Nov 29, 2023 at 22:40

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