The conception of a philosopher’s philosophy could be obtained, loosely this way, by drawing a boundary for that philosopher – a boundary that defines what philosophical problems are and what are not – The boundary inwardly encapsulates the philosopher’s philosophical theories, the conception of philosophy then is what can be essentially abstracted from these philosophical theories. For Wittgenstein, that boundary is the analysis of language. Yet if I proceed hastily this way, we might completely misunderstand Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy, because we implicitly hold a traditional conception of philosophy which is precisely what Wittgenstein would reject.
What constitutes traditional conception of philosophy then, if you agree, is a way of answering or explaining philosophical problems by positing philosophical theories, in short it begins with philosophical problems. On the other hand, Wittgenstein did not think that there are genuine philosophical problems in the first place, and philosophy should start by realizing that philosophical problems are pseudo-problems, hence philosophy should disappear. As evidently in the preface of Tractatus, Wittgenstein summarizes neatly his conception of philosophy as follows:
What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.
Therefore, what can be said at all can be said clearly, which clearly indicates that there are no genuine philosophical problems: The riddle does not exist. If a question can be framed at all, it is also possible to answer it (Tractatus §6.5), philosophical problems are merely confusions in language and we must pass over in silence. Because the solutions provided in Tractatus are by no means themselves philosophical theories, this is why Wittgenstein claims “how little is achieved” when solutions of problems are found (Tractatus preface) and the solutions are merely ladders to be thrown (Tractatus §6.54). Consequently, Wittgenstein hadn’t answered philosophical problems with philosophical theories, instead he tried to dissolve the so-called philosophical problems. I could not help arriving at the conclusion that what Wittgenstein said about language is primarily intended to show (in a Tractatian sense) his conception of philosophy. In other words, his philosophy does not begin with linguistic analysis to answer any philosophical problems, instead it begins with the conception of philosophy that there are no genuine philosophical problems – the complete silence – and then he simply wanted to describe how such pseudo-problems could possibly occur.
Richard Rorty once said that there exists a later Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations, who belongs with Dewey, distinct from earlier Wittgenstein, who belongs with Kant, of Tractatus (Consequences of Pragmatism, p28). It’s thus been a popular opinion to distinguish two Wittgenstein from Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations, simply comparing the technical language employed in Tractatus and ordinary language used in Philosophical Investigations, and indeed, Tractatus is repudiated explicitly as containing grave mistakes in the preface of Philosophical Investigations.
Despite this apparent shift from a picture theory of logic beneath the surface of language to the games conception of language, there had been no shift in Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy throughout his whole philosophical career. Wittgenstein firmly believed that there are no genuine philosophical problems from the very outset, he wrote more because he thought what previously had been said was not satisfactory in showing this conception of philosophy.
Early Wittgensteinian philosophy contends that pseudo-philosophical problems arise due to the lack of understanding of the logic of our language (Tractatus §4.003), philosophy is thus a critique of language (Tractatus §4.0031) and the activity to logically clarify thoughts (Tractatus §4.112). These words might give a false prima facie impression that the boundary of philosophy is now drawn clearly by Wittgenstein, those who misunderstood Wittgenstein , like logical positivists, mistakenly took this as if Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy was all about linguistic analysis. In a letter to an editor who wanted to publish Tractatus, Wittgenstein had written explicitly that the book’s point was ethical, and explained that his conception of philosophy was to dissolve philosophical problems (On Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, p42).
In later Wittgenstein’s work Philosophical Investigations, although, it seems that what Wittgenstein says about language has changed, away from stressing the ontological importance of the mirroring of the world (the fact-stating discourse) to a more pragmatic sense that defines meaning in use (The Great Philosophers, p326). This does not at any rate alter his conception of philosophy. In Philosophical Investigations §89 Wittgenstein refers to the famous Augustine’s saying in Confessions, and reminds us the intuition of the problem “What, then, is time?”
We know when no one asks us, but no longer know when we are supposed to give an account of it.
This is meant to illustrate that genuine philosophical problems do not exist, the confusions arise when language is like an engine idling (PI §132) such as Augustine’s case. In §109, Wittgenstein claims that Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language, and this bewitchment is due to the false belief of existence of philosophical problems and explanations needed for them. Later Wittgenstein, like himself in the earlier period, aimed to show his conception of philosophy that philosophical problems are pseudo problems, in this way, he means problems are solved, not a single problem (PI §133).
So far, I have described Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy, deliberately downplaying the role of his linguistic analysis in different phases, in order to emphasize that Wittgenstein does not intend to advocate a philosophy of language, rather Wittgenstein has his conception, his attitude, and his belief of philosophy that philosophical problems are pseudo problems before he says anything that we would, in this case mistakenly, classify them as philosophy of language. For Wittgenstein there cannot be a new philosophy created to dissolve philosophical problems. There should be no philosophy at all, only therapeutic methods. As I believe, this is crucial to understand Wittgenstein’s seemingly disjointed remarks while at the same time avoiding any self-inconsistent interpretations of Wittgenstein. And this is why I think a discussion on his conception of philosophy should precede his doctrines on language.
At this point we might ask ourselves this question, are there no genuine philosophical problems at all? If we attempt to answer this question, we will ultimately fall back to a critical analysis of Wittgensteinian discussion on language. But it seems to be wrong, as Wittgenstein does not want to explain why there are no genuine philosophical problems, he wants to show how no genuine philosophical problems are to be possible. Then, could we begin our philosophy from a different route, originating from a conception of philosophy that treats philosophical questions as genuine as they can be? Say, can we commence philosophy with a question such as “what is time”, and believe that we can get an account or theory of it?
It is possible indeed. In a Pyrrhonian sense of equipollence, the choice of conception of philosophy becomes a point of departure or divergence in the presupposed view of reality. Is reality as descriptive as what it is, or can we be more argumentative as there is something deeper or higher than the appearance of reality? Still, theorizing and seriously attempting to solve philosophical problems is possible, as a matter of fact, it is what a lot of philosophers firmly believe. Although, Wittgenstein would say he provided an alternative to this conception, an alternative that would bring peace to philosophy and end the confusions and torment (PI §132) haunted with any form of theorizing. Is this fully convincing to give up all the philosophical problems? Well, we can argue either way.
However, even if we can accept that Wittgenstein has provided a possibility of solutions. There is something, which is constantly remerging in philosophy as whole, disturbing in Wittgenstein’s philosophy and interpretation of his work. This awkwardness in Wittgenstein’s philosophy, and in all negative philosophy, whose symptom I will term, in this particular context, as the paradox of Silence: to achieve complete silence, one might have to shout and break the silence, consequently silence becomes impossible. Quietism, in Wittgenstein’s philosophy, aims to make philosophical problems disappear, not only this did not happen, it left an inerasable trace in the history of philosophy, only more philosophical problem has emerged hitherto.
The paradox of Silence, as I believe, is akin to the problem of negation, persistently manifested in negative expression. By the very way of expression of any sort whether descriptive or argumentative, negative or positive, the expression will be inevitable turned into argumentative and positive through interpretations and re-interpretations. Even Wittgenstein himself did not want to write argumentatively or theorize in any way, followers and commentators would re-interpret and re-formulate, and even came up with personal excuses to explain why Wittgenstein failed to write argumentatively. Isn’t argumentative and positive form of expression presupposed in any conception of philosophy whatsoever? Even in such a short essay that I am attempting to show Wittgenstein is not in any way argumentative and positive, but isn’t this already becoming argumentative and positive and degenerating to its opposite end? The negation of philosophy merely turned itself into a different form of positive philosophy, to restore silence, we have to shout for it, and more shouts come along. Nietzsche, Heidegger and Derrida, like Wittgenstein, wanted to negate philosophy, but in the end they all fell into the trap of negative expression.
Wittgenstein himself was definitely conscious of this issue. The shift, if we observe carefully, from the way Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations were written, as I hypothesize, was mainly due to a resisting reaction to the logical positivists’ argumentative and positive interpretation of Tractatus, Wittgenstein, then had became less argumentative and less positive, hoping to dissolve any philosophical problems while at the same time dissolve what he said that could be possibly turned into a positive and argumentative theory. He thought a descriptive method might escape this problem (PI §124), but the problem still remains. Even descriptive propositions will fail the task. When we say descriptively that ‘there is no essence of X, only family resemblance’, then we might, against Wittgenstein’s will, interpret that ‘no essence’ is precisely X’s essence, which could be termed as ‘family resemblance’, although if we look rather than think like Wittgenstein suggested, it seems this attribution happens as a consequence of expression, not what Wittgenstein wanted to show, thus the very expression makes truly negative philosophy impossible. Philosophy expressible is not philosophy per se, the expression of philosophy makes it possible to be interpreted and reinterpreted, and philosophy is thus interpretations possible. So it is impossible for Wittgenstein to shout Silence, and it explains Wittgenstein’s frustration that “Sometimes, in doing philosophy, one just wants to utter an inarticulate sound” (PI §261).
The possibility envisaged by Wittgenstein conception of philosophy, the complete silence, remains impossible. Then shall we regard this possibility as illusionary? There will always be more interpretations and more philosophies just like what Wittgenstein said that there is no last house in the road and one can always build an additional house (PI §132). But, isn’t the limit in expression exposed by Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy triggers something that shall worry us? The paradox of Silence, just like the paradox of the liar who claims “I am telling a lie”, belongs to the group of problems that exhibit the same pattern - negative self-applicable expression is impossible. However, upon a closer look, the possibility created by Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy is excluded merely by this limit of expression. Cannot this bias of expression be a narrow-minded presupposition held generally? That is to say, can we revise our presupposition in expression and make negative expression equally possible as positive expression?
In such a short essay, I do not pretend to come up with anything explicit or concrete, I can only make rough draft of what it means to revise our presupposition of expression, in order that we are able to truly speak Silence. The idea is that we can replace our traditional positive-negative dichotomic expression to holistically metaphorical expression. Here, metaphorical means interpretations-open, not as traditional interpretations-close understanding of expression. The problem with interpretations-close understanding is that it discriminates negative expression, once the self-applicable expression hits the negative end, it is either closed as a contradiction (it is not a genuine contradiction, but a contradiction in expression superficially) or reinterpreted as positive expression, in a way that has the bias towards positive expression. On the other hand, the metaphorical understanding of expression invites all interpretations, most importantly, the interpretations derived themselves should be metaphorical, i.e. expression is self-applicable metaphorically like Wittgenstein ladders, whereas the implicit assumption in traditional understanding of expression is only self-applicable positively. It is in the hope of this new way of looking at expression, that Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy, the complete Silence, will become possible.