“From Wittgenstein To Applied Philosophy.”  The International Journal of Applied Philosophy 9, n1 (Summer/Fall 1994): 15-20.



From Wittgenstein to Applied Philosophy


William C. Gay






How does it come about that this arrow ® points ?  ...  The arrow points only in the application that a living being makes of it.

Wittgenstein, PI  #454[1]


I stumbled into my interpretation of Wittgenstein as an advocate of what is now termed applied philosophy.  In doing research for an essay on linguistic violence,[2] I decided to read more by and about Ferrucio Rossi-Landi because I had already made use of his work on linguistic alienation.[3]  One source, in particular, caught my attention because of its clever, though sexist, subtitle.  In 1991, Ranjit Chatterjee published an essay titled "Rossi-Landi's Wittgenstein:  'A philosopher's meaning is his use in the culture.'"[4]  I learned that her subtitle was a quote from an essay by Rossi-Landi on Wittgenstein interpretation. She suggests that to understand Rossi-Landi's work on Wittgenstein one needs to siutate it in the context of the third phase of Wittgenstein.  Chatterjee contends that while the second phase, associated with Janik and Toulmin, corrected the 'two Wittgensteins' theory of the first phase, the third phase, "stresses the radicality of Wittgenstein as well as the subtle parallels and differences between Wittgenstein and other trends in thought."[5]  From reading Chatterjee, I wondered whether Wittgenstein, instead of calling for an abandoment of philosophy, was encouraging what is now termed applied philosophy.  So, I traced down the half dozen books she cited and found a couple more on my own.  I read all of these sources from the point of view of how they contributed to understanding Wittgenstein as an advocate of applied philosophy.  What follows is my attempt to use these sources to support this interpretation.

One consequence of my argument can be stated at the outset.  I find Rorty's interpretation of Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey to be insufficiently radical.  Rorty writes, "I present Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey as philosopers whose aim is to edify--to help their readers, or society as a whole break free from outworn vocabularies and attitudes, rather than to provide "grounding" for the intuitions and customs of the present."[6]  In my conclusion, I will rely on my interpretation of Wittgenstein to suggest, beyond Rorty, that philosophy needs to be applied in society and not just occur as edifying discourse among philosophers.


I.  Wittgenstein as Healer


Ethics does not treat of the world.  ethics must be a condition of the world, like logic.

Wittgenstein, Notebooks[7]


In Ethics Without Philosophy:  Wittgenstein and the Moral Life, James Edwards writes, "The fundamental intention of Wittgenstein's thinking, in both its periods, is its attempt to incarnate a vision of the healthy human life; the transmission of a moral vision--the attempt to reveal its character and make it potent--is the true burden of all his philosophical work."[8]  James sees all of Wittgenstein's work as "an ethical deed" that is designed as an aid to thinking and living.[9]  He suggests that, for Wittgenstein, "the moral life is essentially public" and "ethics is inseparable from ... politics."[10]  Finally, for James, Wittgenstein's work implies that we should "abandon the global for the local" and "the abstract for the concrete."[11]

Rossi-Landi places Wittgenstein in the context of continental thought and addresses commonalities he has with Marx and Freud.  He says that all three were healers who did not so just build theories but also started new practices.  In the case of Wittgenstein this practical intent is reflected in his metaphors of wanting the fly to get out of the bottle, language to cease being idle, and mental cramps to be resolved.[12]  Rossi-Landi also argues that, insofar as he sought to eliminate false thought and false consciousness, Wittgenstein was working with the concept of linguistic alienation and was developing methods for its reduction.  This interpretation stresses the fact that linguistic alienation often occurs precisely "when we do respect the rules which have been taught to us" and rejects the view that the role of the linguistic therapist is to teach those who have lapsed into "disturbed communication" to "respect" the language games in which they are involved.[13]  What we call "normal communication" masks the ways in which discourse and power are skewed toward specific educational, professional, and racial classes.

Chatterjee contends that Wittgenstein wants us to overcome, rather than succumb, to the fascination of language.  She observes that "everything Wittgenstein writes about language works on itself--i.e., it cancels itself out as it goes, as it does its work, so that it does not become a fascinating object itself, an idol:  language is always in danger of being both idle and an idol."[14]  Because philosophy had largely succumbed to this fascination, Wittgenstein would sometimes suggest to his students that they enter professions more directly beneficial to humanity.  This point is also noted by James Edwards, who observes that another reason Wittgenstein gave this advise was because "the academic environment itself ... breeds the hubris  that despises or patronizes the common lot of most men and women."[15]  Wittgenstein himself followed his own advise during several periods of his life.   He gave away his inheritance, taught for six years in peasant schools in Austria, and even worked as a gardener's assistant.[16]

The ability to find contentment in working with the uneducated and in doing physical labor is a point of contact not only with applied philosophy but also with religious orientations such as Zen.  Chris Gudmunsen, in fact, makes this arguement.  One could compare Wittgenstein with a Zen master in terms of using perplexity to facilitate liberation and in relation to assigning quite common labors for very talented people.  Gudmunsen sugggests that Buddhism and Wittgenstein seek to elicit a different kind of understanding.  Neither is based on a "pattern of confrontation;" instead, for both, "It is treatment which is offered, not theories."[17]

In his book Marx and Wittgenstein, David Rubinstein notes, "Our linguistic uses are not, however, decided by 'mere' convention.  Practical considerations are foremost."[18]  Gier says, "So, despite Wittgenstein's dictum "look and see" (PI, §§66), we must also say "look, see, and think."  Otherwise it would be true ... that Wittgenstein has entirely destroyed philosophy."[19]  To look and see is to learn the language game and its rules of an applied field and to think is to do applied philosophy in that field.  Finally, Henry Staten writes, "The difficulty is in seeing how deconstructive doubt is not a doubt about things but about the unrevisability of established linguistic formulas--and not about just any such formulas, either, but about the ones that are either super-expressions or that, if we are not careful, tend to lead us toward super-expressions."[20]


II.  Wittgenstein's Critique of Linguistic Philosophy


Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does.  This tendency is the real source of metaphysics and leads the philosopher into complete darkness.

Wittgenstein, Blue Book[21]


In his book The Later Wittgenstein, Stephen Himly writes:

The spirit of Wittgenstein's post-1930 philosophy, then, constituted a struggle against the scientific intellectual current of his times, and particularly as this current was manifested in the attempts on the part of his contemporaries (and those who inspired them) to emulate a 'scientific way of thinking' by offering psychological theories and causal psychological explanations  of language or the 'meaning' of signs.[22]

He then adds:

For Wittgenstein, scientific reflection, instead of being free of metaphysics, is itself often a form  of metaphysics, a source  of the metaphysics of our epoch (this is the irony).  For him a 'metaphysician' ... is, as it were, a philosopher playing scientist--that is a philosopher who treats a conceptual matter as if it were a factual one.  Wittgenstein, therefore, far from having an emptional sympathy for metaphysics and metaphysical theology, would have included  among those infamous volumes to be committed to the flames many of the tomes of those would-be 'scientific philosophers' of our era who would do the committing."[23]

Metaphysics per se  is not a problem.  Metaphysics is problematic when viewed as pertaining to facts rather than concepts.  Hume showed that metaphysical language is not about facts, and Kant argued that its concepts should be understood as constructs.  Metaphysics, and ethics, cannot be a science about matters of fact, but the analytic enterprise in modeling itself about science is another manifestation of problematic metaphysics.  If metaphysics and ethics are understood from a constructivist perspective, then the issue is with whom should the philosophers (metaphysian/ethicist) seek to forge consensus.  To do so only within the philosophical community is merely playing the "glass bead game."  The need is to reach conceptual clarity, cogency, and consensus within the public sphere.  For this reason, good metaphysics is found in applied philosophy.

Rubinstein notes ""Like Marx, Wittgenstein believes that traditional philosophy has failed to recognize the embeddedness of ideas in social life."[24]  He adds, "there is a similar emphasis on understanding ideas in the context of practical life, and a corresponding critique of traditional philosohy for failing to do this."[25]  Then, Rubinstein concludes:

Unfortunately, Wittgenstein's suggestion that philosophical propblems are deeply rooted in social life has not been followed up by philosophers attempting to use his methods.  Instead, philosophical inquiry has been focused on linguistic usages narrowly defined.  One might say that attention has been focused on language games, and that the surrounding forms of life have been largely ignored.  The reason for this is that philosophers are not professionally trained or disposed to undertake the kind of analysis of social life implied by Wittgenstein's thought.[26]

Chaterjee notes:

the reason for Wittgenstein's anti-theoretical posture, his noble inability to found a school, becomes clear.  The founding of a school that would expound doctrines in the medium of words would simply represent the failure of the critique of language.  Methodological minimalism in philosophy has as its consequence maximalism in the medium of deeds.[27]

In his book Philosophy As therapy, James Paterman writes:

Philosophical therapy practiced in this mode will be on the lookout for "alien" philosophpical theories designed either to defend or reject aspects of the human form of life.  It will be suspicious of "alien" defenses because of their failure to grasp the real characer of these linguistic practices and the forms of life these theories seek to defend.[28]




In referring to Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey, Rorty says, "These peripheral, pragmatic philosophers are skeptical primarily about systematic philosophy, about the whole project of universal commensuration."[29]  Rorty distinguished these "edifying philospohers" from the "great systematic philosophers" who tried to build what theory is unable to construct.  However, in his characterization he makes Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Dewey do less than their practice is able to achieve.  He states, "Great systematic philosophers are constructive and offer arguments.  Great edifying philosophers are reactive and offer satires, parodies, aphorisms. ... Great systematic philosophers ... build for eternity.  Great edifying philosophers destroy for the sake of their own generation."[30]  While his edifying philosopers are reactive, they do not merely offer satires, parodies and aphorisms; while they destroy for the sake of their own generation, they also help in rebuilding a better present practice.

The critique of theory is not complete unless it ends in practice; the move from epistemology is to social engagement, not to ivory tower edification.  Rorty too narrowly states:

Explaining rationality and epistemic authority by reference to what society lets us say, rather than the latter by the former, is the essence of what I shall call "epistemological behaviorism," an attitude common to Dewey and Wittgenstein.  This sort of behaviorism can best be seen as a species of holism--but one which requires no idealist metaphysicl underpinnings.  It claims that if we understand the rules of a language-game, we understand all that there is to understand about why moves in that language game are made (all, that is, save for the extra understanding obtained from inquires nobody would call epistemology.[31]

Rorty fails to see that for Dewey and Wittgentsein the aim is not only understanding but also change; they have an ethical and a political orientation  With Marx, they are saying, that philosophy is not just to understand the world but also to change it and for the better.


 [1]    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (New York:  The Macmillan Company, 1958), p. 132.

 [2]    "Linguistic Violence," Presidential Address, Sixth Annual Conference of Concerned Philosophers For Peace," Hamline University and Macalester College (St. Paul, MN:  October 9, 1993).  This address is forthcoming in a volume being edited by Deane Curtin and Bob Litke.

 [3]    "Nuclear Discourse and Linguistic Alienation," Journal of Social Philosophy  18, n2 (Summer 1987), pp. 42-49.

 [4]    Ranjit Chatterjee, "Rossi-Landi's Wittgenstein:  'A philosopher's meaning is his use in the culture,' " Semiotica  84 n3/4 (1991), pp. 275-283.

 [5]    Ibid.  p. 275.

[6]     Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature  (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 12-13.

 [7]    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks, 1914-1916, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Harper Torchbooks, 1961), p. 77.

 [8]    James C. Edwards, Ethics Without Philosophy:  Wittgenstein and the Moral Life  (Gainesville, FL:  University Presses of  Florida, 1982), p. 203.

 [9]    Ibid., p. 219.

[10]   Ibid., p. 239.

[11]   Ibid., p. 243.

[12]   Ferrucio Rossi-Landi, "Wittgenstein:  Old and New," Semiotics Unfolding,  ed. Tasso Borbé (Berlin, New York, Amsterdam:  Mouton, 1984), p. 338.

[13]   Ibid., p. 340.

[14]   Chatterjee, pp. 278-279.

[15]   Edwards, pp. 217-218.

[16]   Ibid., p. 206.

[17]   Chris Gudmunsen, Wittgenstein and Buddhism  (New York:  Harper & Row, 1977), p. 72.  Edwards, p. 236, makes a similar point:  "Wittgenstein's abhorrence of rationality-as-representation is ... the expression of a religious commitment; it is the expression, that is, of a fundamental and pervasive stance to all that is, a stance which treats the world as a miracle, as an object of love, not of will.  ...  But it is not an idolatrous  worship, for no image is ever confused with a god."

[18]   David Rubinstein, Marx and Wittgenstein:  Social Praxis and Social Explanation  (Boston:  Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 171.

[19]   Nicholas F. Gier, Wittgenstein and Phenomenology:  A Comparative Study of the Later Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty  (Albany:  SUNY Press, 1981), p. 212.

[20]   Henry Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida (Lincoln, Nebraska:  University of Nebraska Press,1984), p. 156.

[21]   Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books  (New York:  Harper Torchbooks, 1958), p. 18.

[22]   S. Stephen Hilmy, The Later Wittgenstein:  The Emergence of a New Philosophical Method  (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1987), p.209.

[23]   Ibid., p. 225.

[24]   Rubinstein, p. 121.

[25]   Ibid., p. 125.

[26]   Ibid., p. 137.

[27]   Chaterjee, pp. 280-281.

[28]   James F. Peterman, Philosophy As Therapy:  An Interpretation and Defense of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophical Project  (Albany:  SUNY Press, 1992), p. 127.

[29]   Rorty, p. 368.

[30]   Ibid., p. 369.

[31]   Ibid., p. 175.