Tag Archives: Wittgenstein

What Philosophy Is

What is philosophy?

Philosophy is a path of inquiry undertaken by those who are sensitive to, and disturbed by, general dislocations or fault-lines in their inherited or paradigmatic cultural patterns.

Is it intellectual?

Most commonly yes, but not necessarily so.  Every one of us, as we come to our adulthood, may find apparent discrepancies, or outright contradictions, among the various systems of thought in which we have been raised.  Some people, depending on their personal inclination, may ground their personal living exclusively in one such system; some, in an adhoc synthesis of elements from several systems; some turn, in early adulthood, to some new system – new to them, at any rate – that appears to render all previous ones obsolete or irrelevant.

Is philosophy necessary?

For every person?  No, not at all.  It is possible to live fully, completely, satisfyingly, entirely within the range of a single cultural system and its vocabulary and practice.  Many do.

Then what is it for?

The inquiry is undertaken only by those who are sensitive to, and disturbed by, general dislocations or fault-lines in their inherited cultural patterns.  In general, these are resolved when the fault-lines are eased, the dislocations cleared, the colliding conceptual systems brought into harmony.

Can you give me an example?

As a child, I absorbed the religion of my family and culture.  I also absorbed the ideas about science common to mid-century schoolbooks.  By the time I was fifteen it was clear that many things asserted in one of these systems were incompatible with things asserted in the other.  I began trying to figure these out.

The effort of doing so constitutes a path of inquiry.  Every person undertaking any such inquiry is engaged in philosophy, whether self-consciously or not.

The work of philosophy, as I am characterizing it here, is not intrinsically an academic subject.  It may be, in some times and places; in the high middle ages, it was academic, but during the renaissance it was not.  It became academic again in the early 18th century and remains so to the present.

Can you give me more?

Other situations likely to put someone on such a path might be:

  • a person disinclined to spiritual language might devote a lifetime to understanding those who speak such language;
  • conversely, someone who uses the language of spirit naturally and fluently might devote a lifetime to understanding those who don’t;
  • a person naturally committed to logical methods and abstract thought might evolve anthropological sympathies, and come to completely rework the deepest foundations of his thinking (i.e. Wittgenstein);
  • a person of great mathematical ability, possessed of a profoundly mathematical imagination, might attempt to describe or interpret the entire range of human experience in essentially mathematical concepts (i.e. Descartes).

But philosophy, you said, is not necessarily intellectual.

People who devote themselves to this inquiry may find themselves engaging in dialog with others, to establish their path, their errors, corrections, indubitable premises, even the naming of things.  Each path is solitary, but it is necessary to confer with others on their paths.

The most obvious medium of discourse for such dialog is human language; and if language, then concepts, logic, argument, syllogism.  And so a great deal of the history of philosophy can only be told in stories of reasoning, of logic, of conceptual exercises.

In addition, however, there are paths of inquiry that express themselves within the domain of conduct alone.  In such contexts – e.g. monastic practice whether Christian, Buddhist, or otherwise – profound communication may conduct itself at the level of action alone, unmediated by dialog or indeed by any verbal commentary whatsoever.

So one might conduct his inquiry in total silence.


I have some difficulty with that.

Yes.  So do I.

But it does me good to think about it that way.


The Seventy-Fifth Year

…just ended yesterday.  I’m entering my 76th.

Here’s what I can report, more or less long-term: compared to the state of my heart, soul, mind, and strength as of, let’s say, ten years ago.

  • Time — or rather, the passage of time — really does speed up.
  • But nothing really settles down either, or comes to a steady state.  I have, if anything, changed more in the past ten years, since 65, than in any previous decade except perhaps my first, from 1940 to 1950.
  • I know I’ve changed, because the world looks different from the way it looked to me ten years ago.  Call this a shift in perspectives.
  • The language of elder generations is very different from the language of their juniors.  Though it’s composed of the same words, it does not carry the same meanings.  Not even close.  Maintaining decent communication with younger generations requires more energy, every year, than the year before.


I have a useless, and not quite honorable, interest in comparing my longevity with that of people I have admired, or emulated, or been in some way close to.

My father died in 1977.  He was only 67; I’m eight years older than that.

His father was 92 when he died in 1973.  It’ll take me seventeen years to reach that from here.

J.S.Bach only made it to 66.  I have 9 years on him.

Socrates was executed at 70.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was 62 at his death in 1951.

The philosopher J.L.Austin was only 48 when he died in 1960.

Olivier Messiaen, the French composer, died in 1992 at the age of 84.

Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher, is 83.  God bless him.

Variations on a theme by Wittgenstein


From Philosophical Investigations, §2

“Imagine a language . . . to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant BA is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams.  B has to pass the stones, and that in the order in which A needs them.  For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words block, pillar, slab, beamA calls them out; — B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. — Conceive this as a complete primitive language.”

Variation 1

After a day of hard labor with builder A, assistant B has eaten — wordlessly — the dinner his wife has — wordlessly — prepared.  He sits crosslegged before the fire, satisfied.  By degrees, a distant look comes into his eyes.

“Block”, he says softly, staring into the fire.  The wife glances quizzically in his direction.

He looks down at his own hands.  “Block”, he says again.  The woman, who knows the language from observing him at work with his colleagues but has never participated in it, looks around to see the block he must be referring to.

Once again, he speaks, slowly, softly, wonderingly: “Pillar”.  The woman grows distraught and finally frightened.

Variation 2

Assistant B has lunched upon strange mushrooms.  The afternoon’s work begins ordinarily enough; but at some point he responds to builder A’s call “beam”, not by tossing a beam, but with a suggestive pelvic thrust.  Builder A, attending to the work in front of him, does not see this, but calls out again “beam”.  Assistant B dances from side to side, erotically, giggling.

Assistant D, from the adjacent worksite, whose mate gathers from the same fields as assistant B’s, joins the dance.  Several other assistants do the same.

The afternoon grows chaotic, as the workers’ conduct deteriorates to a rhythmic bump-and-grind, shouting each of the four words of their language in turn, circling the stock of parts.  Some begin clapping at each bump.  Others join in on the off-beats.

The masons, bewildered, abandon their work but do not join in.  They go home.

Variation 3

Assistant A and his mate luxuriate — wordlessly — under their furs, after a capacious meal.  He holds up his hand, palm upwards.  “Slab”, he says.  She does not understand.  “Slab”, he says again, and claps his hand to his chest.  Tentatively, she presses a hand to her own breast; he grasps it, transfers her touch to himself, and presses his own hand to her breast.  “Slab,” he says, softly.

She smiles.  He chuckles.  She puts a hand to his crotch.  “Pillar”, she says.  He laughs uproariously.

The rest of the evening proceeds wordlessly.