Wittgenstein on Progress in Philosophy (Quotation)

A famous quote from Culture and Value:

“Philosophy has made no progress? If somebody scratches where it itches, does that count as progress? If not, does that mean it wasn’t an authentic scratch? Not an authentic itch? Couldn’t this response to the stimulus go on for quite a long time until a remedy for itching is found?”


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20 Responses to Wittgenstein on Progress in Philosophy (Quotation)

  1. Nemo says:

    What is “progress”? Does Philosophy have an “end”?

    • Andy says:

      I’ll try my hand at a tentative reading since, like most of the passages in Culture and Value, this one has no real context around it.

      For Wittgenstein, philosophical problems amount to a lack of clarity arising from inconsistent uses of the language. (Imagine, for example, errors made between use and mention.) The problems are treatable by means of getting clear about where we went wrong, by seeing why the problems never should have come up to begin with. In this way, the “progress” made in philosophy would be the treatment of philosophical problems in order to gain (or regain) clarity. To employ Wittgenstein’s analogy, the problems of philosophy are the itches which continue to present themselves and must continually be given therapy by our scratching.

      The last part of the quote looks like some kind of final treatment of the disease that causes our pesky skin irritation. Wittgenstein’s “end” to philosophy altogether would be some way of living with, and using, language in which linguistic inconsistencies and their resulting philosophical conundrums cannot arise at all. Wittgenstein doesn’t spend much time with this notion of a final treatment, and it is not central to the view.

      I’ll stop here since I am unsure whether or not this is the kind of response to your worry/question that you are looking for…

      • Nemo says:

        Thanks for the reply. I haven’t read Wittgenstein at all, so I was trying to get a rough idea of his view on philosophy in general and his approach to it. Wittgenstein for Dummies, if you will. :)

        When I see the word “progress”, a question immediately comes to mind, how do we measure that progress? In Wittgenstein’s analogy, if the itch stops after scratching, then we may say we’re making progress. Otherwise, it’s not progress, but retrogress or stalemate.

        Plato noted the limitations of language in dealing with abstract, philosophical concepts long ago. The problem is not a new one. So I wonder what’s Wittgenstein unique contribution, if any, to identifying or solving the problem. How do we measure progress or clarity in philosophy?

        • Andy says:

          Both the IEP and the SEP entries on Wittgenstein are much clearer “quick-fix” introductions to his contributions to philosophy than I could attempt (poorly) to give here. If you get around to reading him, though, I’d start with the Blue Book and work from there into Philosophical Investigations. (You will likely notice, in keeping with your comment about the history, that Wittgenstein knew his Plato –the Theaetetus and Parmenides in particular.)

          With regard to measuring progress, I take it that the analogy gives us a picture of progress that is not measured against some standard. To what end would we measure the progress of scratching an itch? I scratch one itch, then another, then another, and so on until I die, but that is not progress made toward curing itches altogether. Progress is made by returning my skin to its comfortable, non-itchy state, but it is not clear what meaningful method of measurement we might use for the quantification of this.

          Since Wittgenstein’s conception of how we deal with philosophical problems has the form of dissolving philosophical problems and not solving them in a traditional sense, the standards against which progress in philosophy might be measured are just as absent as standards of measurement on the itching model. We deal with the problems as they arise and will continue to deal with them since they keep coming up, but we aren’t going to assure that any of those problems we did find therapy for -the problems which did disappear- won’t crop back up in the future.

          I realize this more than likely doesn’t do much in the way of response.

          • Nemo says:

            For some reason you response reminds me of Sisyphus. I find the absence of measurement for progress in philosophy a bit worrisome. Just out of curiosity, how do philosophers evaluate the quality of your own work? How do you know whether you’re dissolving, masquerading or exacerbating the problem?

          • Andy says:

            You are not alone in this worry about an absence of measurement when it is taken up as a response to the history of philosophy as a whole. Incidentally, this problem of whether or not philosophy makes progress is the heart of the problem for Camus in his The Myth of Sisyphus, so you are in good historical company on both your worry and your analogy. Here is Richard Rorty on this same worry: “To say that philosophy makes progress, however, may itself seem to beg the question. For if we do not know what the goal is –and we do not, as long as we do not know what the criteria for a “satisfactory solution” to a philosophical problem are– then how do we know that we are going in the right direction? There is nothing to be said to this, except that in philosophy, as in politics and religion, we are naturally inclined to define ‘progress’ as movement toward a contemporary consensus.” (This is from his introduction to The Linguistic Turn, a collection of papers on analytic philosophy.)

            Wittgenstein wants us to see that we ordinarily communicate with each other in clear ways and says that the return to this kind of clarity is our goal. Evaluating a given therapeutic attempt in philosophy, then, looks like evaluation of any other attempt to use the language. Either you see what went wrong and that the problem is no longer a problem, or you do not. A common analogy from Wittgenstein is that he tried to “show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” If we must employ a measurement or evaluation of success in an endeavor such as this, then it is just the fly’s being inside or outside of the bottle. (The fly evaluates the therapy given to him by successfully flying out into the open or remaining in his prison.) None of this will do anything to assuage your worry, however, without an unspoken background and examples of methods that would be better established by Wittgenstein’s words than by mine.

          • Nemo says:

            Wittgenstein’s analogy of the fly-bottle sounds a bit vain (for lack of a better word) on his part. To “show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”, did he not realize that he himself lived in a much more confined space than the fly-bottle — what’s the surface of the earth compared to the universe? :) It brings back my question with regard to how one evaluates/measures the problem and his relation to it, whether he still suffers from the same problem masqueraded as something else without realizing it, or he has indeed dissolved it, as you put it.

          • Andy says:

            I am now thoroughly confused, I confess. Is the worry that we don’t know how to use our own language? How is it vain to show someone a method of doing something and then asking them to judge the effectiveness for themselves? We share the language and its on the basis of that language that therapy is given. Also, on your earth-universe analogy are we somehow trapped on the face of the planet and are really meant to fly about in the ether? (Tweaked a bit Wittgenstein might love this kind of thing, like asking “How could anything be said from outside of the universe since we are always already inside it?”)

          • Nemo says:

            I realize it’s terribly vain of me to discuss Wittgenstein, whose works I have not read. But I’ll try to explain my last comment.
            1. By offering “a therapy” to others, the person implies that he is free of the problem himself, if not, “Physician, heal thyself”. My question is, could he be suffering from the same problem without realizing it?
            2. Whether the fly is inside or outside the fly-bottle is not a qualitative, but a quantitative difference. The space in which it moves is still extremely confined. So my question with regard to Wittgenstein’s method is: What qualitative difference is there before and after the “therapy” has been applied?

          • Andy says:

            No one can fault you for questioning either what Wittgenstein has said or what I have done in my responses, I see no vanity here! However, I am worried that what is needed for a sufficient response to the kind of worry you have is an example of therapy being given on the background of the work done by Wittgenstein, and I feel that would all be better left to your reading his work than my rather unclear attempts so far at exegesis. With this in mind…

            In response to 1: The possibility of Wittgenstein still being unsettled by philosophical problems is a live one. Some say he has been dogmatic where his work is supposed to be completely anti-dogmatic. If the worry is that he is still doing philosophy after therapy then the response is that we scratch one itch and then there are others and we deal with them in turn. This is a personal endeavor, and we might say that Wittgenstein “gives” us nothing. All he does is remind us of how we use the ordinary language. What happens then is seeing where we said something we failed to give meaning to, or we used a word to signify two different meanings, or a host of other “methods of therapy” which subvert the problem we had been responding dogmatically to.

            In response to 2: The best I can say about the qualitative difference is a matter of simile. The quality of therapy is like that of being shown that you said or believed something nonsensical. The resulting clarity is bound up with a kind of awkward silence.

          • Nemo says:

            Before Wittgenstein’s therapy, the person was dumb, after the therapy, he became mute. I think I’ll stay with the Greeks a little longer. :)

            Did Wittgenstein cite any specific linguists that had a major influence on him?

          • Andy says:

            Haha, I guess I have succeeded in representing the view as both foolish and insulting. Excellent. Funny though, Wittgenstein has been paralleled with Socrates in many texts and I would list him as an influence along with Leibniz, Frege, Russell, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard.

          • Rad Geek says:

            Nemo: Before Wittgenstein’s therapy, the person was dumb, after the therapy, he became mute. I think I’ll stay with the Greeks a little longer . . .

            M: “. . . I used to be told, before I knew you, that you were always doubting yourself and making others doubt; and now you are casting your spells over me, and I am simply getting bewitched and enchanted, and am at my wits’ end. And if I may venture to make a jest upon you, you seem to me both in your appearance and in your power over others to be very like the flat torpedo fish, who paralyzes those who come near him and touch him, as you have now paralyzed me, I think. For my soul and my tongue are really numbed, and I do not know how to answer you; and though I have been delivered of an infinite variety of speeches about virtue before now, and to many persons-and very good ones they were, as I thought-at this moment I cannot even say what virtue is. And I think that. you are very wise in not voyaging and going away from home, for if you did in other places as do in Athens, you would be cast into prison as a sorcerer. . . .”

            S: “. . . As to my being a torpedo, if the torpedo is paralyzed as well as the cause of paralysis in others, then indeed I am a torpedo, but not otherwise; for I perplex others, not because I am clear, but because I am utterly perplexed myself. And now I know not what virtue is, and you seem to be in the same case, although you did once perhaps know before you touched me. ”

            – a couple of Greek guys flirting with each other about the effects of philosophy

      • Rad Geek says:

        Wittgenstein’s “end” to philosophy altogether would be some way of living with, and using, language in which linguistic inconsistencies and their resulting philosophical conundrums cannot arise at all. Wittgenstein doesn’t spend much time with this notion of a final treatment. . . .

        I dunno, doesn’t he? It seems like this sort of “end of analysis” is importantly part of the goal of the Tractatus, and the struggle against that picture is part of the important shift in PI. To live with language in such a way as to end philosophical puzzling would be to become perfectly adept as a logical grammarian — to succeed in catching and keeping the will-o’-the-wisp of logical form. But if there is no such thing to catch, or no such thing as catching it . . . .

        I’m rather inclined to think that if we take seriously what Cavell (for example) has to say about the “projectability” of concepts — and on the late Wittgensteinian themes that Cavell is drawing on here (on the urban geography of natural language, etc.) — then I think it has to be part of the nature of a certain sort of language-game — of any language-game of the sort you could reason or explain in, say — that there could not possibly be a way of living with language that does not raise the possibility of philosophical problems. To live with a language where concepts and linguistic structures can constantly be projected into novel forms is to live with the pervasiveness of risk, doubt, misfires, mistakes, confusion, — since to acknowledge the possibility of projection just is to acknowledge the risk of failing to cotton onto the novel uses, or to shift contexts appropriately, or to recognize the interplay between the old usage and the new, or . . . .

        And often we should like to be perfectly adept at these things, but (1) it seems clear that we cannot do that with any set of ex ante rules about what good language ought to look like (as the positivists seem to have thought); (2) it also seems clear that we cannot do that with any set of ex ante principles about what good linguistic therapy ought to look like (as AoTLP seems to have been hinting); and (3) setting all that aside, it’s not clear that we possibly could count as being perfectly adept by any means within us (what if the conversational context is not something that’s always up to us, but depends on future contingents about what others will play or non-play? what if it involves external objects, like the meter-stick in Paris or the chemical structure of water, which may not be epistemically transparent to us? etc.). And it’s not even clear if this, were it possible, would always be desirable (what if projection serves a tentative or exploratory purpose, not just an analytical or declaratory one? not to allow a certain degree of risky or even confused behavior may simply be to close us off from some funky new neighborhoods that language might otherwise work itself into. . . .).

        • Andy says:

          Thanks, Charles! I agree I was too hasty there. The aim of the Tractatus does involve the eventual end of analysis, as you said. (This seems especially true on constructionalist readings, though there are some places we just don’t go…) I passed over this feature mainly because I was thinking too much about PI when I wrote the response, and this is of course why “living with language” heads up the line. I confess I am unclear about the various envisioned “complete endings” with regard to Wittgenstein. There seems to be the “utopian” reading involving these “perfectly adept logical grammarians” which, taken from the standpoint of PI, involve this “form of life” which would exclude philosophical problems, and not simply the Tractarian application of the logic. In addition, there’s whatever someone like Rorty has to say about the post-philosophical world becoming a reality which takes the form of realizing that philosophy is dead. So certainly, there’s much more to be said than I made out.

          Ultimately, I am also inclined to agree with this reading where we never reach some “perfectly adept” stage. I haven’t thought about the addition of projection, since my Cavell is quite rusty as of late, but its exactly the kind of response I’d lean towards. It would be odd to have a form of life in which we could not ‘risk’ in this way. I would read Wittgenstein as happily carrying all of this with him and agreeing that the problems will continue to present themselves as long as we are fallible (read: “ad infinitum”). Of the three final points against the perfectly adept claim, I find the third, following the Cavell and the “form of life” talk, to be the most intriguing and evident. They are all, of course, points I am on board with. The reading of the analogy looks like philosophy doesn’t “end” since the possibility of its problems is a constant and because of this, progress is made through steadfastly scratching itch after itch.

  2. Nemo says:

    Rad (or may I call you Charles?),

    LOL. Both Socrates and Wittgenstein can strike people dumb, though perhaps for different reasons. There is a parallel there, but they seem to be pointing in opposite directions.

    After a conversation with Socrates, one would say to himself, “I don’t know what t’m talking about! I don’t know what [the thing] really means. I’ve got a problem.”‘ With Wittgenstein, “I know it now! Avoid logical fallacies and speak proper grammar, there is no problem at all.”

    As a result, Socrates the gadfly stirs people to pursue philosophy, Wittgenstein, OTOH, might give them the impression that “philosophy is dead”. The person gains “clarity”, i.e., scratches an itch, there is nothing more to be done.

    • Rad Geek says:

      Nemo: Rad (or may I call you Charles?) …

      Sure, of course. (“Rad Geek” is just a signature I use on account of certain other Charles Johnsons who are on the Internet.)

      Nemo: There is a parallel there, but they seem to be pointing in opposite directions.

      Different directions, for sure; I’m not sure about opposite. And I think that they might really be less different in the end than they seem at first.

      Nemo: After a conversation with Socrates, one would say to himself, “I don’t know what t’m talking about! I don’t know what [the thing] really means. I’ve got a problem.”‘ With Wittgenstein, “I know it now! Avoid logical fallacies and speak proper grammar, there is no problem at all.”

      Well, I think that the bit after “I know it now!” is for L.W. much easier said than done, but it’s the doing that he’s interested in. The AoTLP seems to have some faith that there is a state you can be in where you will become perfectly adept in the avoiding and in the grammaticalizing — a state that can only be really understood by reaching it, but which will disclose itself to you, irresistibly when and to the extent that you reach it. (In many ways it ends up sounding something like what Socrates is portrayed as teaching Meno about the unforgetting of true knowledge in the second third of the dialogue.) Now, as I understand the later L.W., that faith in the End of Analysis is one of the things that really does change and come under the later L.W.’s criticism. In some ways this makes his project seem less Socratic (or Platonic, whichever), since it means a much less idealized picture of what logical understanding amounts to; in other ways, it makes it seem more Socratic, since it means that there is no end of philosophy to aim at — it’s not a matter of reaching some perfected state of clarity, only an ongoing process of recognizing confusion and clarifying. . . . (In PI, Wittgenstein says that the real discovery is the one that allows you to stop doing philosophy when you want to — but of course stopping it is rather different from finishing it.)

      In both cases, though, it also seems important to me that the kind of clarity that you’re supposed to come to — either the silence at the end of TLP, or the scratched itch of later L.W. — is not supposed to be a purely cognitive, intellectual or linguistic achievement. Philosophical clarification isn’t just a matter of understanding something that you hadn’t understood before, it’s a matter of doing things you hadn’t been able to do and going on with your life in a different way that you hadn’t previously been able to live. The outcome really is supposed to issue not only in knowledge but in something that’s at least a little like the kind of seriousness and earnestness about thought and life that Socrates characterizes as the outcome of pursuing philosophy — not just a feat of technical cleverness. I mean, Russell could do that.

  3. Nemo says:

    Interesting. What are the later L.W.’s criticisms of the Ideal state of his earlier conception? Since it’s an ideal state, obviously he couldn’t have criticized it from a full knowledge or experience of it. So I’m curious to know how he lost faith in it.

  4. To jest śliczna fotkaz solidnymoświetleniem-)

  5. Serfuję online wiecej niż 3 godziny dziennie i jeszcze nie trafiłam na tak zajmujące forum jak Twoje.
    W mojej opinii jeśli wszyscy Właściciele witryn dawali tyle z siebie interent byłby bardziej
    pomocny. Znamienitarobota.

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