I studied philosophy and English Literature at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in the 80's. The philosophy department at Newcastle was headed by Geoffrey Midgley, and was unashamedly skewed towards so-called “ordinary language” philosophy (Midgley had studied under Gilbert Ryle in the 1940s). Obviously it covered all the usual stuff – empiricism, rationalism, ethics, and so forth – but the “culmination” of the course was undoubtedly Midgley's third-year lectures on Kant (a very “Strawsonian” Kant) and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. To say that the first two years of the course gave you the “illness” and the third year gave you the “cure” would be a caricature, but not a completely unfair one.
Unfortunately for me, Midgely retired at the end of my second year, and because the department was due to be closed down the year after I graduated he wasn't replaced. The other lecturers had to fill the gap as best they could and the job of teaching Wittgenstein fell to someone who, by his own admission, didn't really understand the Investigations. This was especially frustrating as I had already come to sense – via my own reading and a kind of departmental osmosis – that there was something undeniably important going on in that book. As a result, although I graduated with a good degree, I definitely felt I had unfinished business with philosophy – and especially with the philosophy of Wittgenstein.
On and off in the years that followed I read a considerable amount both by and about Wittgenstein, and eventually came to feel I had a firm grasp of his “message”. In fact, by the early 2000's it seemed to me that I was more or less done with the subject. I knew as much as I wanted to know. All the same, Wittgenstein remained an intellectual touchstone; over and again some remark or claim (usually beginning “But science has proved that...”) would bring to mind passages from the Investigations. In fact, Wittgensteinian allusions would sometimes crop up in unlikely circumstances. I once wrote a minute to a senior Cabinet Office official explaining that there was no precise definition of “government department” because the range of bodies falling under that term had developed at various times to meet various needs (I think I stopped short of calling it a family-resemblance concept). The senior official nodded politely and put my minute on file.
That anecdote makes it sound as if Wittgenstein's philosophy is merely a quirky way of looking at things that sometimes (surprisingly) comes in useful. To present it in that light would be a travesty. In a way that I still find impossible to express coherently I've long felt that Wittgenstein's insights are desperately important. They restore a wholeness to our vision of humanity that the modern world seems hell-bent on kicking out of us. It's not at all obvious that that's what's going on, but I genuinely believe it's the ultimate outcome of the vision that he presents.
Anyway, in the Spring of 2011 I turned up at the pub for a drink with a close friend only to find him reading the Investigations. I asked what had led to this unusual choice and he said “I thought I'd find out why you were always going on about it”. As it happened, he'd bought the new 4th edition which featured a revised translation by Hacker and Schulte. I'd heard a bit about this and was keen to see for myself what changes they'd made (among Wittgenstein buffs Anscombe's 1953 translation is much-loved; you mess with it at your peril). As I was unemployed at the time and in no position to cough up £20 to buy my own copy, my friend agreed to lend me his when he'd done with it.
And so some time around August 2011 I found myself once again leafing through the Investigations. After I'd spent a while being sniffy about the changes to the text (no “fishy”, no “queer”, no “shews”!) it occurred to me that I might as well read the damn thing again. It had been about ten years since the last time, so why not? And then I remembered a remark of Wittgenstein's about how he'd used lots of punctuation when writing the Investigations in order to slow the reader down – he wanted it to be read carefully. And this tied in with his comment in the preface about not wanting to spare other people the trouble of thinking. A light went on in my head; I began to see how that linked to his claim that philosophy (or his philosophy, at any rate) was akin to a kind of therapy.
On this view, the book is not just an account of a philosophical position, like Descartes' Meditations or Kant's Critique of Pure Reason – it's also an invitation to work through the problems for yourself. Even when it's not directly presenting the reader with questions and exercises, the Investigations conducts an on-going debate with an imaginary interlocutor who voices objections on the reader's behalf (including many that probably wouldn't have occurred to the reader otherwise). The point of this approach is that by working through things the reader takes ownership of the answers. And it's this process that helps overcome an inbuilt prejudice against accepting Wittgenstein's arguments – as he sees it, the primary difficulty is not one of intellect. It's a question of will.
Much of this only occurred to me later, but at the time I at least realised that for all the effort I'd expended over the years trying to understand Wittgenstein's philosophy, I'd never read his master-work in the way he seems to have intended. Perhaps it was time I did things properly.
At the very least that meant reading it with a notebook and pen by my side, jotting down thoughts and questions prompted by the text. So that's what I started to do. But I soon realised there was something a bit empty about the whole process. I was taking notes (lots of them, as it happened) but notes towards what? Without some goal in prospect it was simply too easy to be lazy; I could jot down endless observations such as “here I think Wittgenstein means [such-and-such]” or “I don't really understand this section” but by themselves they didn't really amount to anything. “Here I think Wittgenstein means language is stupid”, “Here I think Wittgenstein means the moon is made of green cheese”. So what? There was no threat of comeback to force me to really pay attention and get my thoughts in order. And that's when it occurred to me that it might be helpful to keep a blog. Publishing my understanding to the world would force me to think things through carefully and at least try to organise them in a coherent form.
So on 22 August 2011 I kicked off this blog with a rather poor post about §1 of the Investigations. I followed it up a few days later with an even worse one about St Augustine. Since then, I hope, the general standard of my posts has improved. But even if it hasn't, one thing I can tell you is that my understanding of the Philosophical Investigations certainly has improved. In fact the process of maintaining this blog has been a revelation to me – and not always a comfortable one. As I mentioned earlier, I had reached the point where I felt I had a firm grasp of Wittgenstein's philosophy. But a careful, interactive reading of the Investigations has exposed some shameful gaps in my understanding. I'm sure it will continue to do so.
At the same time, attempting to get things properly in focus has been an extremely rewarding experience. This blog has become a much more important part of my life than I ever anticipated when I began it two years ago. It has been a hobby, an obsession and (occasionally) an ego-boost. But above all it has reinforced my belief that (unlikely as it may seem) Wittgenstein's blizzard of remarks about meaning, understanding, knowledge and intention have something important to teach us about ourselves – about what it is to be a human being.
19 October 2013