Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Wittgenstein's Turnabout

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Wittgenstein's Turnabout

Article excerpt

We are all familiar with the distinction between the early and the later Wittgenstein, along with the many different interpretations of its significance.

I have long been of the opinion that the crucial factor giving rise to the turnabout in Wittgenstein's thinking concerning the nature and function of language was his time spent teaching middle school children in the villages outside of his home city of Vienna. In what follows I shall delineate the rationale that has led me to this conclusion, together with some specific points of connection between his experience as a school teacher and the main facets of his later philosophy.

The backdrop for the following reflections is provided by the obvious differences between the metaphors and concrete images found in Wittgenstein's early work, on the one hand, and those in his later work, on the other. Speaking more specifically, the root metaphors that dominate the Philosophical Investigations are decidedly distinct from those controlling the perspective on language expressed in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

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Quite obviously the dominant and common element in the major metaphors in the Tractatus is spatiality. Beginning with the notion of "logical space" and "logical pictures" on down through the correlative concepts of "logical limit," "logical network," and "outside', spatial relationships are always at the forefront. This central characteristic provides the point of integration for understanding the Tractatus as a whole, and yet to my knowledge its importance has gone largely unmentioned in the literature on the work. There are qualities and limitations inherent within these spatial metaphors which need unpacking.

To be more specific, the root metaphor in the Tractatus is not simply spatiality, but is what might be called "visual space". That is to say, the point of view is invariably that of how things would be seen to relate to one another by an outside observer. This theme is particularly well focused in the picture theory of meaning with its emphasis on the "mirroring" of the common logical form between facts and propositions. Moreover, Wittgenstein's treatment of logical space is in terms of points in relation to one another as seen by an observer, rather than from the perspective of the points themselves. In other words, the stress is not on being at a point but on visualizing a point's position in space in relation to other points, all of which are located outside of the viewer.

It is, of course, hardly surprising to encounter this visual-spatial metaphor at this juncture of the history of Western philosophy. It has played a major role in the thought of many thinkers, from Plato's cave through Descartes' "clear and distinct ideas" to Russell's "knowledge by acquaintance". It can be argued that this bias in favor of vision as the primary metaphor in delineating the nature and structure of knowledge has led to a distortion of human cognitive experience. The Tractatus in this way serves as the clear-cut culmination of this long tradition, as well as the focus point of the modern philosophical position known as "logical atomism."

Yet another important characteristic of this visual space metaphor is its static quality. Throughout Wittgenstein's discussion of "logical space" there is not the slightest indication of there being any movement, change, or interaction among its constituents. Everything has its place, whether in the realm of the actual or in the realm of the possible, and the logical form of this place is reflected in the language about it, never in the act of speaking itself but only in static propositions. It is a world of cold, crystalline purity structured by a logic which can deal only with being (how things are), not with becoming (how things change). The comprehensive scope and integrating power of this spatial model are obvious, but even Wittgenstein came to feel that the price for these advantages is too high because it results in a distorted view of both the world and language. …

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