Wittgenstein and The Limits of Thought

Theory Thursdays anyone?
Below is an introduction to the life, work, and legacy of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. There is little doubt that he was a towering figure of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein has been credited with being the greatest philosopher of the modern age, a thinker who left not one but two philosophies for his successors to argue over. The early Wittgenstein said, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”; the later Wittgenstein replied, “If God looked into our minds he would not have been able to see there whom we were speaking of”. Language was at the heart of both.
Wittgenstein stated that his purpose was to finally free humanity from the pointless and neurotic philosophical questing that plagues us all. As he put it, “To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle”. He was something of a philosopher’s philosopher. But how did he think language could solve all the problems of philosophy? How have his ideas influenced contemporary culture? And could his thought ever achieve the release for us that he hoped it would?
In this video Melvyn Bragg discusses Wittgenstein and these questions with Ray Monk (Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton), Barry Smith (Lecturer in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London), and Marie McGinn (Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of York).

25 responses to “Wittgenstein and The Limits of Thought

  1. My question for those who talk about what they know of W and what he has to say, is how is it that I’m even coming up with anything to say about what he had to say in such a way that you were understanding me?

    The very fact that we are sitting here having this blog 100 years later shows something about what he was saying that was missed. Or rather as I put it that he is misunderstood, and for some agenda.

    Or more precisely that he was saying something that people don’t want to admit.

    Because if he was correct, if he was such a towering figure of philosophy then why did philosophy continue?

    Is it simply because people fail to understand him? As if people are not educated enough and if they did understand him then… what happens?

    Because I think that if we do understand what he’s really saying then understanding what he has to say really has nothing to do with any sort of education or being schooled in traditional Western philosophy or anything like that.

    Because just like with Deleuze. If I am understanding him why would I have anything else to say about what he saying? Because if I understand what he saying then he said it and there’s nothing more to be said about it. But this is not the case with all philosophers, I’d say, but only particular philosophers that are saying something rather significant: it’s not that philosophy is going away or is dying. It’s that once you understand what they’re saying then it is already dead.

    But the simple fact is that it persists. It doesn’t matter what theory I come up with to say that it’s going to die or go away, the very fact that I would even have to discuss that shows that philosophy is still occurring and it doesn’t matter what we call it.

    I mean honestly, I’m asking you: is somehow my mind going to suddenly stop processing life in such a way to ask questions about it and answer with things that aren’t readily apparent about it?

    Anyways. I tend to ramble. I’m trying to listen more, and pronounce less.

    • Hello Landzek,

      Let me try to respond to most of your questions. First, we share a linguistic heritage and communicate among and participate in a shared regime of semiotic practices. This enabled us to enact ‘meaning’ as linguistically inflected bodily dispositions. These shared semiotically stimulated neuronal dispositions afford us communicability and intelligibility. Lions roar in order to signal intentions (gesture) and cope socially, and humans speak to accomplish the same. It’s as easy as that. Interlocution is the coordination of brain/body capacities performing socially, wherein differential dispositions (Bourdieu’s habitus) form through practice to various dispersals (cf. M. Wark) of attitude and indexical regard. This is where W’s notion of ‘language games’ becomes indispensable.

      Next, philosophy continues for a few reasons. Tradition, habit, people who refuse to admit it’s time to move on, but, if we are to believe W, it is also because it offers a kind of “therapeutics” wherein we can intellectually challenged our notions and suss out arguments for more or less coherence/insight. Philosophers are supposed to be good at asking questions and rationally debating. That kind of thing helps us exercise some of our errors and create concepts for further ponderance.

      And I agree that if we were to really take W serious we would view all discourses as language games, which would mean we would have to reorganize education. I’m all in favor of that. My ‘ecological realism as ontographic sincerity’ post was gesturing at that. Until we explicitly adopt intellectual attitudes that accept the ‘truth of negation’ (nihilism, finitude, etc) AND the reality of material ecological embeddedness we are hopelessly lost in speculation and language games that prevent us from action.

      Even if W said something radically important we still have to talk about it, think critically about it, and learn how to adopt it. That is why we have to continue to say/theorize. For me, the key is that theory/philosophy/speculative discourse is always about semiosis and attitude engineering for adapting (expressing + coping). Theory is a psycho-active practice or “therapeutics” on the way to 1) developing better thought-to-communication habits, 2) have more significant conversations, and 3) mobilize better. Intellectual expression and processing is meaningless if it’s not attached to the being and doing and relating in everyday life.

      I like how you put this: “it’s not that philosophy is going away or is dying. It’s that once you understand what they’re saying then it is already dead.” Exactly. That is the beating black heart of the post-nihilist thought. Once we understand the truth destroying truth of perpetual negation we can transform the way we operate in the world. Auto-destruct to ‘liberate’, or at least create some flexibility.

      • https://www.nordicwittgensteinreview.com/article/view/3362
        “This paper aims to distinguish Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘form of life’ from other concepts or expressions that have been confused or conflated with it, such as ‘language-game’, ‘certainty’, ‘patterns of life’, ‘ways of living’ and ‘facts of living’. Competing interpretations of Wittgenstein’s ‘form(s) of life’ are reviewed (Baker & Hacker, Cavell, Conway, Garver), and it is concluded that Wittgenstein intended both a singular and a plural use of the concept; with, where the human is concerned, a single human form of life characterized by innumerable forms of human life.”

        • Just from the abstract. I think that guy mite be making a good point. The “singular” and the “plural” use may be similar to what I see as an indication of what I call a ‘partition’.

          Irony is the ‘letting fall’ of meaning to a common sort to be negotiated toward the particular and identified meaning. I see that kind of reckoning a (to use that term) “plural” use [of any term].

          I tend to find philosophy in the “singular” use; which is to say where irony ‘does not fall’ but rather ‘stays suspended’ (Is there a teleological suspension?). So, In order for this to be the case (for use, or to be useful) a partition must be enacted to prevent to falling of the concept into relative, what I call, ontological argumentation; that is, even as it will inevitably fall under certain conditions.

          Hence. In order to be specific to the case, I refer to different ontological bases. Absolute different Beings that indeed do not communicate ‘across’ to each other (so to speak) truths, but routinely fall back into the ironic ontological unitive effort. The plural sees a potential for communication for or to all Beings. The singular understands that there is no common conduit for communication to All Beings.


          Did I ask either of you guys if you would be interested in reading my book ?

          For free. Unless you feel, as some do, that a persons work should always be paid for. Which is fine. But that’s not why I write. Some people insist on buying it.

          • in terms of philosophical anthro human-being is one (in evolutionary terms we are all of the same basic composition and obey the same laws of physics) but our ways of being in the world are many and that’s where the communication happens and breaks down, why we aren’t unified (unifiable) at the level of communication/organization.
            No thanks I don’t get the sense we are on a similar trajectory of thought but I appreciate the offer, Michael enjoys more speculative philo than I do so maybe he’ll read it.

            • How do you distinguish knowledge of, say, the common evolutionary (human) Being, and knowledge that informs of ways of Being?

              I am asking this honestly. Not facetiously. Can you explain?

              • if your asking about what is the difference between knowledge in the physical sciences and the social (never to be a real science) the physical sciences triangulate around physical objects (in this case anatomy). If people honestly believe that we don’t all exist on the same physical plane and share common basic anatomy I leave them to it.

                • Yes sure. But we are talking about how that anatomy actually manifests toward expression. And then how that manifestation proposes to get beyond itself. I am asking you what mechanism do you use to do that ? Logistically speaking, of knowledge ?

                  If we are to see philosophy as something that concerns a sort of involved actuality, what is occurring for you in this way, such that biology is allowed to be omitted from, say, Witt. And Deleuze’s notions, as you know them?

                  • sorry I can’t follow what yer saying, this isn’t that complicated what exists (ontology if you must) is well spelled out by the physical sciences and is (at least for all relevant human purposes) uni-versal, how individuals get socialized and what they make of those inputs over time/places are varied, from the wiki of St.Turner:
                    ” In The Social Theory of Practices as well as in other writings Turner argues against collective concepts like culture: what we call culture (and similar concepts), he argues, needs to be understood in terms of the means of its transmission. There is no collective server by which it is simply downloaded and “shared”. What we take as “collective” is really produced through experiences of interaction which are different and produce different results for different individuals but which also produce a rough uniformity through mechanisms of feedback rather than “sharing”.” So how best to attend to these processes of action and reaction seems to depend on what problems/interests one is taken with and what forms of empirical analysis would serve them.

                    • I agree. Yes

                      Now, Where does philosophy come in?

                      See, to me, Philosophy is not another separate epistemological item, say, like the physical sciences. Philosophy is a name for what is occurring. I’m am not speculating on this even while I enjoy some of the speculative ideas, though. I am reflecting actual lived experience.

                      I am not sure how I am able to understand , as our topic here, Witt. And then place what he says, how I understand him, his point, in a category similar to the physical sciences.

                      How do you accomplish this?

                    • you’ve lost me, if this “Philosophy is a name for what is occurring.” isn’t speculative I don’t know what is , what is occurring is reality, how we might account for aspects of it is a matter of epistemology/anthropology, Witt wasn’t trying to account for reality just for some of our ways of trying to grasp aspect-dawnings, some like Deleuze mistakenly believe in social engineering others of us just focus on individuation/coping:

                    • It’s funny how I am agreeing with you, but it seems like you are not agreeing with me. Lol

                      I agree exactly with what you say of W.
                      But what does that mean? I think It means he’s not trying to make an argument about ontology, about what is or what being is. No?

                      Why would he do that? I think it’s obvious.

                      Because if you understand what he saying about language, and basically everything he says, then as soon as he would start to talk about being or what being is or how it manifests or anything like that, then he would have contradicted the fact of being. There would be no sense to make of his philosophy, or at least his philosophy would have such blatant contradictions that he wouldn’t be a figure that he is.

                      There is no point in talking about it, about what being is or how something manifests as being.

                      I mean sure, there is a point of having ontological discussions and stuff like that but those occur under different conditions, and actually demand a certain kind of attitude upon existence to even be able to consider whether any of those propositions have any credence.


                      He thus describes what is occurring. In Every sentence he is Describing that which “is”. He is describing it. He’s not making an argument about it, necessarily, the argument comes subsequent to what he’s talking about. He’s talking about the facts. He’s talking about what there is to talk about. He is having a view upon being and then describing that view describing what he sees, describing the conditions of it, describing what occurs under certain conditions of that being.

                      Do you disagree?

                      each of your comments that you have said to me that you’ve posted as a reply, I am telling you yes I agree with what you’re saying and…

                      And then you reply is if you don’t really agree with what I’m saying, and you comment..

                      And then the first thing I say as a reply to your comment is yes I agree, and..

                      Now, if I was a philosopher, and someone was responding to me in that way, I would ask not is this person crazy, but why is he responding to me in that way.

                      I mean I have to ask you if you think I’m being dishonest, or if you think I’m not informed when I say that I agree with you?

                      Of course I’m not telling you how you should respond.

                      I’m just pointing out that everything that you’ve said about W I totally agree with.

                      So that makes me wonder : how is it possible that if W was so correct, As it seems both and you and I agree as it seems both and you and I agree, how are we disagreeing?

                      What is the content of our disagreement?

      • For your thoughtful and considerate response.

        I agree with that synopsis. To a point which I make in my books. Lol

        But I would also add because of that we cannot be talking about some sort of common humanity, that all humans behave according to these rules of semiotics and discourse etc. it has to be that only a few people who understand, as the significant example, what W means. But as well it only operates for those people and not all people .To the extent that I supply an overreaching umbrella to say all of humanity, implies that I have an obligation say to educate everyone in the world. But I would say that is an ideal, and idealism. I would say that it does not exist across the category of humanity except in the fact that I’m having faith in the idea that I invest in that particular term “humanity”.

        But in truth, we would have to admit, at least I think, that most of humanity doesn’t know what the fuck we are talking about.

        And so I would also agree with what you’re saying towards the end I think; but I draw a hard line and say that at some point we have to stop playing around with trying to convince everyone that we have some sort of valid argument to make and just start taking action upon what we know is true about the situation at hand. Because not even everyone in the intellectual Academy with a bunch of letters after their names and titles , understands what the fuck we (as a name of a as yet unknown or I admitted group) are talking about either even people who would use the same words as we do. There is a conundrum in there. But I would say that that is where philosophy has validity to operate, in that area of the conundrum. Of sorting out in an ethical (universal;Kierkagaard) Manner as segregation of operation and function, of ability and capacity, in the same way that we say computer scientists have this skill and knowledge, say, that I myself have no possibility of understanding what the fuck they’re talking about. Nevertheless, I put my trust in them to do a computer engineering . in the same way philosophy has to come to terms with what it is really doing and where and how it is allowed to operate.

        Can you agree with that?

        • ” we have to stop playing around with trying to convince everyone that we have some sort of valid argument to make and just start taking action upon what we know is true about the situation at hand” a lot of folks can’t let go of the idea(l) of convincing everyone (and or that the masses are or have been convinced of any One thing ever, see all the structuralist chatter still about Ideology, Myths, etc) but let us leave that aside and return to yer point, the question is are some of the things the people we call philosophers (forget about Philosophy, doesn’t exist, never did) useful in deciding what is the case, what should be the case, and how do we get there, and how are we to answer such questions about their fitness?

          • Im. It sure how it reads, but I’m going with: “are some of the things the people we call philosophers…useful in deciding what is the case, what should be the case…” etc.

            I think that is a good Philosophical question.

            But I disagree that philosophy never existed.

            Yes; many philosophers are involved in attempting to convince. But convincing of what ?

            So, I would say. They are involved in a different sort of Being that the philosophers who, say, understand Witt and Deleuze are. Because they still see ontology as something which can be negotiated. It is not that they are incorrect, but that they actually are ontologically different from the latter situation (W and D. Say). The way the behave As Being. Is upon a different basis. One that requires a different manner of responding to things.

            • ontologically different (what could that mean?) or different on ontology? What are the characteristics of Philosophy if it exists?
              I would say all philosophers are trying to make a case but not all believe that all people can or even should be convinced, Witt for example said ““If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.”

  2. In the spirit of listening, perhaps I am being presumptuous.

    What do you mean by ‘philosophy’ ? And then how are you applying these latest posts to that meaning?

    Can you sum it in a reply here?

  3. Honestly though;

    I tend to shut down conversation and discussion. So I have made a sort of commitment to myself to try and not do that. To try to elicit discussion and promote discussion and so to hear what other people have to say.

    How great a job I am doing at that I’m not too sure. 😆

    So if you would be so kind as to pretend that I am not being an ass.

    What do you mean by philosophy?

    • a bit of roughly translated Deleuze on reading a new author:
      So I would like to mark the cuts. Today I would like to start with a kind of trial and error. I’m calling you. This call is about trusting the author you are studying. But what does “trust an author” mean? That means, it means the same thing as groping, that proceed by a kind of trial and error. Before understanding the problem posed by someone or the problems posed by someone, it takes a lot …, I do not know what, you have to ruminate a lot. It is necessary to group a lot, to regroup, it is necessary to uh … the notions which it is in the process of inventing. It is necessary to silence in oneself, at all costs the voices of the objection. The voices of the objection are those who would say too quickly: “Oh, but here there is something wrong”. And to trust the author is to say to himself, do not talk too fast, leave … uh … you have to let him talk. You have to let him talk. But, all that consists … before knowing the meaning it gives to words, you have to do a kind of frequency analysis. Be sensitive to word frequencies. Be sensitive to his style. Being sensitive to his obsessions to him.

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