Overcoming the Tradition as a Spiritual Act
Anti-Philosophy & Anti-Academia
“…what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does no make you more conscientious than any…journalist in the use of DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends.” (Wittgenstein, 1944)
Heidegger too questioned the point of academic philosophy. Wittgenstein’s position, as articulated above, is very close to Heidegger’s own stance against academic philosophy.
Heidegger thought that academic philosophy “has no heart…for radical, revolutionary questioning” (Caputo, 1998). Indeed, although the debates in the departmental seminars can get a little heated at times (especially on trivial points of technical detail), the “institutional discourse is never ultimately disturbed by these debates, however lively [they are]” (Caputo, 1998). In fact, both Heidegger and Wittgenstein thought that “philosophising is a living act (Vollzug), a personal form of life” in which “the philosopher seeks for himself to make things questionable” (1998). It may not have been the case, however, that Wittgenstein thought, like Heidegger, that philosophy “is a normalising” discourse because Wittgenstein’s own radicalism isn't entirely of the same timbre as Heidegger’s (as we have seen in previous sections). That is, Heidegger’s radicalism is ultimately more political – yet still ethical/spiritual - than Wittgenstein’s, whereas Wittgenstein’s radicalism is of a more personal and spiritual bent.
So both Wittgenstein and Heidegger had a “vision of a culture in which philosophy was not a profession, nor art (Rorty, 1976)”.
Wittgenstein, in a letter to the logical positivist Maurice Schlick, once said that
“from the bottom of my heart it is all the same to me what professional philosophers of today think; for it is not for them that I am writing” (1932).
Yet, strangely enough, it is, usually, only professional philosophers who think that they have got Wittgenstein right. That is, if professional philosophers accuse each other of “getting Wittgenstein wrong”, then what hope have non-professional persons got of getting him right? A few, though not many, Wittgensteinians may say, however, that non-professional Wittgensteinians have more chance of getting Wittgenstein right. Though this is certainly not the general view amongst, say, analytic Anglo-American philosophers.
Despite all that, Wittgenstein has of course been hugely influential outside the Philosophy Academy in the sky. Films-makers have produced works on him, poets have written poems about him, sociologists, psychologists, linguistics and even religious thinkers have stolen or used his ideas. Now this is strange, at a prima facie level, if we bear in mind the considerable complexity of Wittgenstein’s work – a complexity that also runs alongside considerable profundity. However, if the views articulated in this essay about Wittgenstein’s essential mysticism/spiritualism are correct, then perhaps it's not so strange - after all - that he is well loved outside philosophy departments. It may indeed be Wittgenstein’s unthought or thoughtless esoteric prose-style that appeals to all those people on the outside. (As well as all those people outside all academies.) There must be something of a non-complex or non-intellectual (or even anti-intellectual, as in Heidegger) nature that appeals to all these non-philosophers. Can we really accept the possibility, which some people (say, certain analytic philosophers) may state, that all of these outsiders have got Wittgenstein wrong?
The Solution(s): Metaphilosophy and the Desire to Overcome Philosophy
“It is [Heidegger’s What is Metaphysics?] that Carnap chose to attack…But both Heidegger and Carnap were claiming to move beyond metaphysics, and Carnap’s article, for all its aggression, was not the cheap trading in misunderstanding its has sometimes been supposed to be…[Carnap argues that Heidegger] fails to take account of the history of philosophy he is disengaging and with which he is working…” (Marian Hobson, 1998) ¹¹
It's not surprising, to an Anglo-Saxon at least, that most of the great revolutionary and/or metaphilosophical philosophers of the past were either Austrian or German (e.g., Hegel, Marx, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and even the positivist Carnap written about in the above).
It was Hegel, himself a revolutionary metaphilosopher, who implanted into the psyche of the great Austro-German philosophical tradition the imperative that each new generation of philosophers must transcend the generation that had gone before. This was, to Hegel, the “spiritual destiny” of all good German philosophers.
So the philosopher Carnap, whose logical positivism claimed to “overcome metaphysics”, analysed a “metaphysical work” - in order to “overcome metaphysics” - which was itself attempting to overcome metaphysics.
To continue this interplay between Carnap and Heidegger: it's worth noting that Heidegger himself borrowed one of Carnap’s titles for one of his own works. All this shouldn't be too surprising, however: both Heidegger and Carnap were not only against traditional metaphysics: they were also against metaphysics for similar reasons.
For example, both of them were against the metaphysician’s desire to grab hold of morality and turn it into some kind of quasi-science in which the objects of study would be moral pre-existent ideas rather than objects, processes, etc. Heidegger thought that this shouldn't even be attempted. That is, morality and theology should have some kind of autonomy from philosophy. Carnap, on the other hand, thought this couldn't be done (at least during the period referred to here). He thought that the domains of theology and morality were empty and therefore not open to quantification. (Despite what some may call Carnap's “free and easy” attitude towards conceptual schemes or conventions.)
Heidegger also used the term “destruction” (as in the “destruction of metaphysics”). The term itself was borrowed from Martin Luther – his word destructio. (This in fact was Luther’s own tool for cutting through medieval scholastic intellectualism in order to re-find the pure truth and spirit of the New Testament.) And the post-structuralist movement in turn borrowed and then adapted this word to come up with the now famous term “deconstruction”.
Despite what both Heidegger and Wittgenstein (perhaps Derrida later) may have thought about their own destructivist, deconstructionist or therapeutic work, they weren't doing something new - or at least they weren't doing something that was entirely new. Rorty makes this clear in the following passage (which can be taken to be a potted history of meta-philosophy):
“Heidegger [and Wittgenstein?] is not the first to have invented a vocabulary whose purpose is to dissolve the problems considered by his predecessors, rather than to propose new solutions to them. Consider Hobbes and Locke on the problems of the scholastics, and Carnap and Ayer on ‘pseudo-problems’. [And consider Socrates retreat from pre-Socratic natural philosophy.] He is not the first to have said that the whole mode of argument used in philosophy up until his day was misguided. Consider Descartes on method, and Hegel on the need for dialectical thinking…In urging new vocabularies for the statement of philosophical issues, or new paradigms of argumentation, a philosopher cannot appeal to antecedent criteria of judgment…Descartes and Hegel may have seemed ‘not real philosophers’ to many of their contemporaries, but they created new problems in place of the old…Many philosophers – practically all those whom we think of as founding movements – saw the entire previous history of philosophy as the working out of a certain set of false assumptions, or conceptual confusions…But only a few of these have suggested that the notion of philosophy itself – a discipline distinct from science, yet not to be confused with art or religion – was one of the results of these false starts.” (Rorty, 1976)
As far as Heidegger is concerned, although the German philosopher thought that metaphysics could only be overcome by “ceasing all overcoming and by leaving metaphysics to itself” (Heidegger), he didn't, in fact, succeed - at least not according to Jacques Derrida. The French philosopher thought that
“any attempt to claim an escape from metaphysics necessarily involves the blind appeal to at least one metaphysical concept which compromises the escape the moment it is claimed” (see Bennington, 1997).
That is, according to Derrida himself, “complicity with metaphysics” is unavoidable. And elsewhere, referring directly to Heidegger, Derrida said: “…Heidegger, for example, worked within the inherited concepts of metaphysics.” Then Derrida goes even further by claiming that
“Since these concepts are not elements or atoms, and since they are taken from a syntax and a system, every particular borrowing brings along with it the whole of metaphysics.”
So, for example, not only did Heidegger, as it were, inadvertently “borrow” the concept [Being], as Derrida seems to imply, I think that he wanted to and knowingly borrowed such a concept so as to connect himself with the metaphysical tradition he tacitly still admired or respected. This is the tradition that had more or less began with Aristotle and, to take just one example from the late 19th century, was still going strong with Brentano’s thoroughly Aristotelian philosophy.
To turn to Wittgenstein.
Although he was very anti-academic, it mustn't be forgotten that he spent at least twenty years as an academic (as did Heidegger). And throughout Wittgenstein’s life he spent most of his time almost exclusively in the company of other intellectuals (if not always with philosophers). So, perhaps for Wittgenstein, there was “no doing philosophy that does not engage (even if in the mode of denial) with the history…of philosophy” (Bennington, 1998). Though my own take on the thesis that if one assumes a meta-philosophical position, or “deconstructs the philosophical tradition”, or whatever, one is still contaminated, polluted or corrupted by that which one is attempting to overcome.
For example, I don't believe, in a certain sense, that Marx was actually a complete Marxist (as it were). Despite the fact that he “turned Hegel on his head”, it was still Hegel he turned on his head. So rather than saying that Marx was a “Left Hegelian”, why not simply say that he was a Hegelian simpliciter (or an Aristotelian rather than a “Left Aristotelian”)?
Similarly with Nietzsche.
The 19th century German philosopher was utterly shaped and formed by the Christianity he was trying to overcome. So much so that he even wrote a work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the Old-Testament style (as well as other works in the New Testament style).
So it may have been with Wittgenstein.
He profoundly reacted against, for example, Cartesian internalism (even if he had never read Descartes). He therefore, in a sense, turned Descartes on his head and in so doing became a kind of proto-externalist (of the late 20th century variety). Of course, certain Wittgensteinians may say, along with certain Derrideans, that the “binary opposition” (Derrida’s term), externalism/internalism, is false; or it's at the least simply counterproductive in that its use will trap philosophical radicals within the system they are trying to overcome. (Of course, Wittgenstein had read Frege, Russell, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant, and many others, despite his protestations to the contrary.) In my view, again, it was Cartesian internalism and individualism that he most rejected. On the other hand, Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Frege and Russell were the philosophers he most accepted.
Wittgenstein’s spiritual path beyond the tradition, like Heidegger’s, wasn't so pure after all. Indeed, if one wants to achieve a state of pure unthought or thoughtlessness, then perhaps reading or writing lots - or even a little (in Wittgenstein’s case) - philosophy is perhaps not the best way to achieve that. (Even Zen unthought or thoughtlessness requires a hell of a lot of normal thought before it can achieve that state: if such a state can ever, in fact, be reached.)
In many cases Wittgenstein thought that the causes of philosophical confusion were philosophical questions themselves. In this sense he is like Heidegger and Derrida who both thought that in order to overcome or deconstruct western philosophy, we mustn't use its tools, confront its problems, or even ask traditional philosophical questions. (Derrida, however, unlike Heidegger, thought that we could never truly escape metaphysics.) In fact, Wittgenstein himself said, of philosophical questions (or at least traditional philosophical questions), that it “makes no sense to ask” (1947) these sort of questions in the first place.
Though it wasn't only Wittgenstein (in the Anglo-American analytic tradition) who had this sort of attitude towards the problems and questions of philosophy. The philosopher G. E. Moore, before Wittgenstein, said that the world itself didn't present him with any problems. (Not problems that made him want to philosophise anyway.) He claimed to have been turned into a philosopher not through a love of philosophy or a sense of metaphysical perplexity or astonishment; but because of the nonsense talked and written about by other philosophers. (Not only was this term “nonsense” often used by Wittgenstein too, it was also a favourite put-down used by all types of 20th century analytic philosophers.)
As Heidegger put it, we “must strive to overcome” these questions if we are to be free from them. We can't be free of them, on the other hand, if we still insist in trying to refute or answer them. (At least this is what Heidegger thought and Wittgenstein might have thought.)
It may be wise to finish with a passage from a philosopher who – sometimes - attempts to walk across the dangerous no-man’s land between Heidegger’s Continental philosophy and Wittgenstein’s Anglo-American analytic philosophy. And because of his precarious position between these two (sometimes) warring factions, it's perhaps not surprising that he neither venerates Wittgenstein nor drags him down.
Here is Richard Rorty on Cavell’s Wittgenstein:
“…[Cavell’s philosophy] helps us realise what Wittgenstein did for us…[He] raised the question of the moral worth of our epistemology courses, of our discipline, of our form of life…Wittgenstein suffered from, and constantly complained about, the company he had to keep in the course of this endeavour…[he] produced writings…a host of commentators will not be able to construe as offering ‘philosophical theories’ or ‘solutions to philosophical problems’.” (Rorty, 1980-81)
In many respects, the analytic philosophers who've claimed Wittgenstein as their own, may be, in many cases, precisely the kind of philosophers, and perhaps people, that Wittgenstein said he “suffered from” and “complained about”.
Heidegger too questioned “the moral worth” of our philosophy courses. And yet the philosopher who's so like Wittgenstein in so many ways is also the philosopher whom many analytic philosophers have traditionally suspected or even despised.
1) The many American academics who've taken on board the Continental tradition, and who also almost entirely sympathise with it, have also taken on board its style/s as well as its philosophical obsessions.
2). I similarly appreciate Rorty’s “demystifications” of the parallel self-conscious obsession with analytic and stylistic purity in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, as well as, at times, its quite obvious pedantry that often hides under the label “analysis”.
3) Or, on the other hand, what Tyler Burge calls the “obscure, evocative, metaphorical, or platitudinous” discussions of “social factors” in philosophy (1979, in his ‘Individualism and the Mental’).
4) The following passage touches on the ‘private language argument’:
“…in the Third Meditation, when Descartes attempts to identify his essence as a subject by feigning a set of impossible conditions. He proposes to close his eyes, shut his ears, suspend his senses, efface from his thoughts all images of corporeal things…But Descartes’ effort to achieve a more familiar acquaintance with himself could only take place through an interior conversation with himself, which implies the use of representation and the exchange of signs – that is to say, the material and thus necessarily metaphorical character of language – at the very moment when he pretends to exclude from his thoughts all images of corporeal things.” (page 46, Derrida and Deconstruction, edited by Hugh J. Silverman, 1989)
5) This is despite the fact that I have much stronger leanings towards the Anglo-American analytic tradition than I have towards most of the Continental tradition/s. So it may be interesting to read this comparison between Wittgenstein and Heidegger that occurred within the analytic tradition:
“The state of affairs ‘presented’ by the picture or sentence is thus presented by us, by our making a picture. Therefore, a picture or a sentence is the act of presenting a state of affairs…one could believe one was reading Heidegger.” (Stenius, 1963)
6) That is, if a man thinks that it will rain, then he must exist.
7) There's also this passage from Kant’s Critique:
“ …the principles of reason…do not conduct us to any theological truths…we recognise [reason’s] right to assert the existence of a perfect and absolutely necessary being, [but] this can be admitted only from favour, and cannot be regarded as the result of irresistible demonstration.” (Critique of Pure Reason, Transcendental Dialectic)
See also S. Körner:
“ The Critique of Pure Reason has made room for faith… Although ‘morality leads unavoidably to religion’ an act of faith is required to close the logical gap between morality and the Idea of God…” (pg. 169, Kant, by S. Körner)
- What I call the “Protestant strand” of Catholicism (or, at the least, of Catholic theology and philosophy) has a much longer lineage than is commonly thought by many people on the outside of the faith - especially many Protestants. Indeed, as Kierkegaard says in this essay, it can be traced back to St. Paul (see Kierkegaard’s passage near the top of the ‘Religion, Metaphysics and Reason’ section).
9) This is an historical account of Germany’s attitude towards reason and rationalism:
“Theory was not the strong point of movements devoted to the inadequacies of reason and rationalism and the superiority of instinct and will. They attracted all kinds of reactionary theorists in countries with an active intellectual life – Germany is an obvious case in point.” (Eric Hobsbawn, in his Age of Extremes, 117)
It's also worth noting Wittgenstein’s anti-Semitism here. Biographically, most of the Wittgenstein family had converted to Christianity by 1838 and Wittgenstein’s grandfather promptly developed a reputation for being an anti-Semite. What of Wittgenstein himself? For example, he once wrote that “the Jew lacks those qualities which distinguish the races that are creative and hence culturally blessed” (1931). He also referred to “the Jews’ secretive and cunning nature”.
10) For example, Michael Dummett and what he sees as Wittgenstein’s destruction of “the grounds” that would be needed in order to construct a “viable theory of meaning”.
11) See also Marian Hobson: “…only a little later than these works of Heidegger, Rudolf Carnap’s logical positivism proclaimed the ‘overcoming of metaphysics’ and famously used examples from Heidegger’s Was ist Metaphysik? (1929) to show that they couldn't be turned into logical-syntactically well formed sentences (Carnap 1932)…Carnap [however] is tolerant of Nietzsche because what he wrote was ‘literature’. (Note 14, page 237, Hobson). It's also worth saying here that Derrida too couldn’t really “overcome metaphysics”, as he admitted. Indeed that was probably partly the case for simple geographical or cultural reasons. That is, he was brought up in the midst of the Austro-German-Franco philosophical tradition he tried to overcome. And because he couldn’t overcome traditional philosophy and still be a philosopher, perhaps that’s partly why he turned almost exclusively to literature and other non-philosophical areas in his later years. Had he been an American or an Englishman, he would have found it so much easier to overcome the tradition. After all, the metaphysical tradition doesn’t actually mean that much to the average Anglo-American. This is why, I think, Rorty is more successful, in certain ways at least, at criticising the tradition, if not overcoming it, than Derrida. He is certainly more so than Heidegger. Though Rorty too has turned to literature and other non-philosophical areas. I think that in this endless parade of one-upmanship, both Derrida and Rorty went too far. The truth of the philosophical tradition is blindingly simple as well as being very unsexy. That is, some parts of the tradition are right and some parts are wrong. Or, conversely, some parts of the backlash against the tradition are right and some parts are wrong. Rorty’s blanket dismissal of, say, analytic philosophy and much of continental philosophy simply doesn’t work in its entirety.