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After finishing his first work, Wittgenstein left philosophy, thinking that he "solved" all philosophical problems. He is now considered one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, if not of all time. But his followers seem to have conflicting interpretations of his philosophy. Also, philosophers still ask and study questions like the meaning of life, existence, etc. It seems that, while Wittgenstein is acknowledged as an important philosopher, mainstream philosophers nowadays do not consider his philosophy to be the philosophical Theory-of-Everything.

Is Wittgenstein's claim to have "solved" all important questions generally accepted in the world of philosophy? If so, why do people continue to practice philosophy? If not, why not?


By "mainstream philosophers", I'd include: Russell, Frege, Heidegger, etc. Frankly, I don't know much about philosophers nowadays.

  • I am assuming by "first work" you mean the treatise. If that is the case, then consider that Wittgenstein later claimed not to agree entirely with his original views. – Cicero Jul 6 '15 at 11:09
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    I would like to know really. What is the -- mainstream philosophers?? You are proposing there are non-main philosophers. Who are they? Will you kindly pick up the names and the criteria to distinguish between 2??? Will you? – Kentaro Tomono Jul 6 '15 at 12:56
  • Peter Unger has (with a little assistance from Wittgenstein, mind you!): 3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/06/… – jimpliciter Jul 6 '15 at 22:13
  • Wittgenstein did not understand or solve philosophy, and nor did the other thinkers that you mention. They were all hopelessly muddled. Russell even goes so far as to claim that there is no knowledge to be gained in metaphysics. W's and R's work is a perfectly clear demonstration of how little they understood and there's no solution is sight. We should all aim to do better. . . – PeterJ Jul 4 '17 at 13:07
  • Do you honestly believe Wittgenstein, considered one of the most original philosophers of the 20th century, did not understand philosophy? – Franz Jul 6 '17 at 6:11
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There are philosophers that hail Wittgenstein as the greatest of the greats. There are also philosophers that do not. Just like in most areas of philosophy there is disagreement.

In the Tractatus 6.54 he states

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

He is in a sense essentially telling the reader to discard his argument and move on. It was due to the Tractatus however that logical positivism came to gain influence, despite this not being Wittgenstein's intent.

In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein takes a much less rigid approach than he took in the Tractatus. He in fact is arguing against some points he made in the Tractatus.

While Wittgenstein will forever have a place in the history of philosophy, both in analytical philosophy and philosophy of language, his popularity is fading and he is no longer the philosophical rock star he once was. Though I am sure there will always exist a camp in philosophy for the Wittgenstein scholars.

I'll end this with a quote from Bertrand Russel (Wittgenstein's mentor) that I think sums things up quite nicely

“For a whole term, I could not make up my mind whether he was a man of genius or merely an eccentric.”

As I stated earlier there is quite a bit of disagreement on how great Wittgenstein really is in the world of philosophy. As for if he "solved" philosophy, obviously this is not the case, as why would people still practice philosophy if Wittgenstein had definitively "closed the case?"

  • This is a thoughtful response. However, it's very possible for the fans of some field of study (such as philosophy) to continue on, despite there being excellent reasons to believe that the entire edifice is silly, vacuous, misguided, or just completely false. If a group of people enjoy entertaining ideas in a given way, they'll be less likely to discard the associated texts and techniques when they really should. I don't think that all philosophy is this way, I'm just pointing out that the existence of practitioners is not, alone, sufficient to establish legitimacy. – jeffreysbrother Jul 6 '17 at 23:46
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As far as I can see, Wittgenstein himself wouldn't have considered himself as having solved the problems of philosophy. So why would anyone else think he has? Let me elaborate.

For the later Wittgenstein, philosophy was largely a form of "therapy", that cured the asker of philosophical questions of the delusions brought on by language. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

In the Preface to PI, Wittgenstein states that his new thoughts would be better understood by contrast with and against the background of his old thoughts, those in the Tractatus; and indeed, most of Part I of PI is essentially critical. Its new insights can be understood as primarily exposing fallacies in the traditional way of thinking about language, truth, thought, intentionality, and, perhaps mainly, philosophy. In this sense, it is conceived of as a therapeutic work, viewing philosophy itself as therapy.

But I believe there are also direct quotes from W. that relate philosophy and therapy, although I can't locate them right now.

Going with this -- Wittgenstein's own -- interpretation of what philosophy really is, that is, a way of "curing" askers of philosophical questions of their "delusions", Wittgenstein's job is never finished: philosophical questions will always be asked, and on these occasions new therapy will have to be provided.

  • Thank you for your comment. "a way of "curing" askers of philosophical questions of their "delusions", Wittgenstein's job is never finished." Wittgenstein believed (or one of his interpretations) that all deep philosophical questions arise from ambiguous definitions in bad syntax. (e.g. is number seven is blue?) What other questions do you think is his unfinished job? – Bingkongmaster Jul 8 '15 at 4:04
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If Russell counts as a major Philosopher, then in his opinion (towards the end of the introduction to the Tractatus), Wittgenstein solved the problems he set out to solve; but he explicitly notes that there remains questions of 'life' that are untouched, and implicitly more important questions ie ethics, politics and power so on.

His followers are strictly involved always in interpreting his philosophy; but also moving it on in different directions - hence the room for disagreements is plentiful.

  • Russell later criticised Wittgenstein, see his Foreword to "Words and Things" by Ernest Gellner. – alanf Jul 7 '15 at 12:53
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    "If Russell counts as a major Philosopher" --- Really? =( – hellyale Jul 7 '15 at 15:22
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    @alanf: according to SEP, Wittgenstein felt that Russell had misunderstood his philosophy; so there was criticism on both sides. – Mozibur Ullah Jul 7 '15 at 18:33
  • Thank you for your comment. What other questions are untouched? I'm sure that in his philosophy of language, "important questions" in ethics, politics, and power are also arise from ambiguous definitions in bad syntax. For example, US democrats argue that "healthcare is good," but that is obviously based on their own definition of "good," which is perhaps anything anti-republican. What are the other "important questions" that Wittgenstein's philosophy of language fail to address? – Bingkongmaster Jul 8 '15 at 4:09
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Is Wittgenstein's claim to have "solved" all important questions generally accepted in the world of philosophy? If so, why do people continue to practice philosophy? If not, why not?

Wittgenstein's work is conventionally divided into early and later phase. The representative texts of these two phases are Tractatus (early work) and Philosophical Investigations (later work). Since your question about philosophy refers to conception of philosophy in Tractatus, I'll omit his later conception of philosophy.

It is a common misconception that Wittgenstein with Tractatus ended practice of philosophy. That simply doesn't hold. Let me explain. In Tractatus one must distinguish between two conceptions of philosophy. First conception represents both, traditional philosophy and philosophy in Tractatus. This conception of philosophy is traditionally called metaphysics. The problem with metaphysics is that it tries to say what can't be said but only shown. This results in plain senseless propositions of traditional philosophy and also of Tractatus. Consider what Wittgenstein wrote just before the last thesis:

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.

Compare this to his remark in the preface:

On the other hand the truth of the thoughts communicated here seems to me unassailable and definitive. I am, therefore, of the opinion that the problems have in essentials been finally solved.

Wittgenstein thought that he solved questions and problems that belong to this conception of philosophy -that he finally ended with "metaphysical swamps".

But what about the second conception of philosophy? What is it? It answers your second question. The primary task of every future philosophy is now elucidatory. Philosophy becomes a skill, practice. Philosopher doesn't offer any new theories; he reveals nonsense:

4.112 The object of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts.

Philosophy is not a theory but an activity.

A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.

The result of philosophy is not a number of “philosophical propositions”, but to make propositions clear.

Philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred.

This is the explanation why Wittgenstein ended philosophy (solve all important questions) and how is it possible that philosophy still matters - even more than before. It is also the fundamental belief for his later conception of philosophy.

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Wittgenstein did not end philosophy.

Karl Popper refuted Wittgenstein in an essay reprinted as chapter 2 of "Conjectures and Refutations". Popper pointed out that non-philosophical disciplines like physics give rise to philosophical problems. For example, the problem of change arises from physics: if you want to say X changes then X is different after the change than it was before, but X has to be the same thing as before and this looks like a contradiction.

Ernest Gellner also refuted Wittgenstein and his followers in his book "Words and Things". He went into a lot more detail than Popper about why Wittgenstein's ideas are mostly irrelevant to philosophy.

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    Which Wittgenstein's ideas are irrelevant to philosophy? Can you be more specific please? – a_z_s Jul 6 '17 at 14:23
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    Your example is a great example of what Wittgenstein said philosophy should do - not build big theories, but instead focus on clearing up conceptual confusions that abound in science and other disciplines. The problem you mention is only a problem if you have confusion about the meaning of a symbol. That problem about the meaning of "X" disappears if you abandon the Augustinian picture of language. – Franz Jul 6 '17 at 23:14
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To a certain extent, it is difficult to fully adhere to Wittgenstein's views and continue working in academic philosophy, as, if you agree with him, most of the major debates are settled so there's not that much left to write about. It's a bit like whack a mole - every now and then a new philosophical puzzle will surface, and you will have to address it, but the main big picture arguments are settled. For example, after writing PI, Wittgenstein didn't completely stop doing philosophy. He wrote On Certainty afterwards. What PI managed to do however, is to free himself in a way, to offer him a way to stop doing philosophy when he wanted to. To understand this I think you need to understand how Wittgenstein's found his own philosophical problems distressing. I believe writing PI allowed him to let go of a lot of the big problems which previously had distressed him - he was able to see where he went wrong, and he no longer asks the same questions.

It is kind of a given that most people working in academic philosophy would not agree with Wittgenstein as they are actively working in areas that Wittgenstein followers believe is already settled.

So mainstream philosophers on the whole do not believe he solved all the problems, as they are working philosophers so they're working on problems they believe are unsolved.

That said, I have put a lot of time into reading Wittgenstein's various works and reading supporting academic literature, and I find his works very convincing, in comparison to any other philosopher I've read.

I'm writing this while on the way to somewhere else, so forgive me for the lack of citations, although I would be free to provide sources if you have any questions.

  • Can you please be more specific about "settled major debates"? There are many different interpretations of his philosophy and they aren't consistent with each other. Wittgenstein's comment on "stop doing philosophy": "You know I said I can stop doing philosophy when I like. That is a lie! I can't" (CMD 1984: p. 219). – a_z_s Jul 6 '17 at 14:37
  • I think he satisfyingly ended the realism vs solipsism debate, the impossibility of private language, showed that the meanings of words isn't a reference, and showed how language and grammatical analogies are one of the prime ways that philosophical problems arise. Regarding the comment about him saying it is a lie, I think he meant he will still continue to do philosophy, but the stakes are no longer as high as they were in the period where he was putting the PI together – Franz Jul 6 '17 at 23:04
  • I strongly agree with your description of a current academic philosophy - in this way all major debates are settled down. But I don't agree with consequences you infer from it. I believe that our task is to apply Wittgenstein's method on new problems and challenges. "Linguistic turn" is obviously dead. – a_z_s Jul 7 '17 at 4:32
  • Which consequences do you disagree with? Perhaps I haven't explained myself too well. – Franz Jul 7 '17 at 9:50

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