Nonduality: The Varieties of Expression
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Nonduality Salon (/\)

Ludwig Wittgenstein



(Editor's note -- Ludwig Wittgenstein's work can help in the intellectual understanding of the nondual approach. His work serves as an effective (though often difficult) antidote to several tendencies that plague speakers of languages. Wittgenstein's antidote, as covered in the essay below, addresses (i) the tendency to believe that words refer to actual objects, (ii) the tendency to believe that the personal self is an entity which observes an external world and external things.

Wittgenstein's philosophy is deconstructive -- it deconstructs belief in a subject/object model of language and of the world. One early Eastern philosopher to whom Wittgenstein has been compared is Nagarjuna (2nd century CE). Nagarjuna's monumental Treatise on the Middle Way (MUlamAdhyamaka KArikA) is a dialectic work of great skill, and steers clear of the metaphysical positions of both essentialism and nihilism. Nagarjuna and Wittgenstein have been compared by writers such as Robert Thurman in The Central Philosophy of Tibet, and Jay L. Garfield in The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way.)


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Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. Born into an extremely wealthy, cultured Viennese family, he studied engineering before beginning a philosophical apprenticeship with Bertrand Russell. Wittgenstein is often thought to have developed two distinct philosophies, one early, the other late. But some believe that there is a continuity between these philosophies. Wittgenstein himself wrote that his later philosophy could only be properly understood against the backdrop of his early philosophy.

Early Philosophy    (Go Back to Top)

The major work of his early period, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is extremely compressed and technical. On the surface, it appears to aim at drawing a limit to what can be captured in words and thoughts. And it seems to do so by means of a distinction between what can be said and what can only be shown -- between the world of facts in space and time, which are describable, and what he calls “the substance of the world,” which shows itself, but cannot be represented. The relation between the facts and this indescribable substance is a subtle one. Roughly speaking, facts are made out of this substance, which Wittgenstein appears to conceive as prior to space and time. Moreover, this substance is the locus of both form and content. Form, for Wittgenstein, seems to be what makes language and thought possible. It also appears to determine what the limits of language and thought are. We can therefore see his attempt to demarcate these limits as an inquiry into the underlying nature or essence of language and thought. Wittgenstein seems to take mathematical logic to exhibit this nature, and devotes much of the Tractatus to it.

Substance of the World   
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As we have seen, however, for Wittgenstein, the substance or essence of the world is not purely formal. In fact, one can interpret it as a sort of transcendental self or “world-soul,” as Wittgenstein calls it. At first blush, he appears to take this world-soul to be the only self there is, writing that the individual self “of which psychology treats” is an “illusion.” On the other hand, Wittgenstein seems to think that the substance of the world can be said neither to exist nor not to exist. Existence and nonexistence pertain to facts, not to what manifests itself in them. This is not to say that the substance of the world causes facts to be what they are. Wittgenstein appears to reject causality completely. “Superstition,” he writes, “is the belief in the causal nexus.”

One can understand Wittgenstein's apparent project of drawing a limit to what can be described -- the world of facts -- as an attempt to express what it is to see the world as a “limited whole.” To see the world this way, he seems to tell us, is to see it sub specie aeternitatus, under the aspect of eternity. By “eternity”, Wittgenstein appears to mean timelessness. Looking at things timelessly reveals their beauty. It also makes one happy. This confluence of beauty and happiness is what leads Wittgenstein to write that “ethics and aesthetics are one.” He sums up his ethics with the words “Be happy.”

In the preceding sketch, I have repeatedly used the words “seem” and “appear.” I have done so because Wittgenstein's early writing cannot be taken at face value. At the end of the Tractatus, we find an explicit indication that he takes his own “propositions” to be “nonsensical,” comparing them to a ladder one kicks away after one has climbed it. Scholars typically take him to be saying that everything he has written in the book is an attempt to say what can only be shown. But this way of reading Wittgenstein is too simple. For among the apparent remarks Wittgenstein seems to imply are nonsensical we find the one that introduces the distinction between showing and saying.

Saying vs. Showing   
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The very distinction around which his entire philosophy appears to turn, the distinction between what can be said and what can only be shown, seems in the end to be just another rung on the ladder Wittgenstein means us to discard. So, it appears, are his apparent remarks of the form “X is nonsensical.” Wittgenstein's early approach to philosophy is so constructed that even the way it appears to say of itself that it is nonsensical undermines itself, leaving the mind no place to hang its hat.

Later Philosophy   
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Near the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein characterizes something he calls the “correct method in philosophy.” This method is dialectical. It requires at least two participants, one of whom attempts to say something philosophical, and another, who attempts to show the first that she has failed to say anything meaningful. While the Tractatus itself does not employ this method, it closely resembles that of Philosophical Investigations, the major work of Wittgenstein's late period. The Investigations takes the form of a cluster of interlocking dialogues. Among the questions Wittgenstein addresses in these discussions are those of whether there are essences, whether we are cut off from others' experiences, and whether there is such a thing as a separate self.

The critical voices in the Investigations suggest that we are often “bewitched” by language. This bewitchment is rooted in, and partly constituted by, our tendency to think of language as functioning essentially to depict facts by means of sentences in which every meaningful expression refers to something. This conception of language seems to be present in the Tractatus, at least as a rung on the Tractarian ladder, and there is in the Investigations a voice that represents it. But this way of seeing language, the Investigations teaches us, is not forced on us. Nor, therefore, are a number of other views that seem to depend upon it -- such, as we will see, the idea that “I” always functions as a name, and the closely related Cartesian view of subjectivity and objectivity, which depicts us as trapped inside the sphere of our own thoughts. In revealing our freedom not to see things in such terms, Wittgenstein is trying to “show the fly the way out of the fly bottle.”

It is not entirely clear which, if any, of the voices in the Investigations represents Wittgenstein's own. One way of interpreting his work is to see the conflicting voices as cancelling each other out. As in the interpretation of the Tractatus suggested earlier, understood in these terms, Wittgenstein's later philosophy does not yield a fixed account of anything. Rather, it serves to undermine such accounts--although not, as in the Tractatus, by appearing to offer one that undermines itself in the end too. It may also be that Wittgenstein sides with some voices more than others.

Essences, Words and Truth   
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Recall the earlier remarks about the idea that language has an essence. Wittgenstein's treatment of this idea is part of a more general critical discussion of essences as such. Many find it plausible to think that in order for what we say to be meaningful and true, there must be essences or universals undergirding our uses of words. According to this view, there is something that all and only cases of, say, understanding share. The existence of this essence is what makes it possible and appropriate to group them together under the single word "understanding". This essence also serves as a standard of truth. For, on this view, it is true to say that someone understands something only if the essence of understanding is in some sense present in her.

One of the voices in the Investigations advances a version of this sort of essentialism. The voice that criticizes it makes the point that the link between an essence and the particular cases that it supposedly enables us to group together is subject to interpretation, thereby undermining the essence's ability to serve as a standard of truth. The voice suggests that the different things properly gathered together under a general term actually lack a shared essence; after all, when we look for an essence, we generally do not find it. Rather than a common feature, the voice proposes, what entitles us to use the same word to talk about a number of different things is simply that these things resemble each other in various ways, in something like the manner in which members of a family do. Such resemblance is often somewhat loose. Nevertheless, it usually serves us perfectly well. We are so constituted, and the world happens to be regular enough, that our linguistic practices generally function properly in everyday situations. Of course, it might be objected that they do not always do this. But the possibility of multiple interpretations of essentialist standards calls into question the idea that essences could be of help in such instances anyway.

Essences, Referring, and Cartesian Duality   
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Instead of thinking that there is such a thing as what understanding is, we can see “understanding” as a word we use in more or less similar circumstances. The same goes for words like “thought”, “meaning,” and “language.” Once we are free of the idea that language has an essence, we can give up the view that the descriptive, referential uses of language constitute the axis around which linguistic phenomena turn. We can abandon the conception that underlying the uses of our words is a precise, crystaline structure akin to, or embodied in, mathematical logic. We can begin to appreciate the incredible variety of our linguistic practices. In particular, we can come to see that there are some uses of declarative sentences -- we will look at an example shortly -- that function, not to describe states of affairs, but to express feelings and sensations. And we can abandon the generally unexamined assumption that meaningful words, such as the word “I,” must refer to something. In this way, the Cartesian view that we are separate selves may come to lose its grip on us.

Pain, “I,” and Grammar   
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For the Cartesian, the foundation on which all my other knowledge rests is my certain knowledge of my own existence and my own experiences. The Investigations calls this conception into question. Let us look first at the idea that I know what I am thinking and feeling. One of the most striking voices in the Investigations suggests that my own relation to my thoughts and feelings is not one of knowing; it is more primordial than that. I do not know that I am in pain; I simply am in pain. Knowledge requires justification or evidence. To know that the earth is round requires that one have some evidence that it is so. But what evidence do I have that I am in pain? One might say that my evidence is that I feel pain. But to say that I feel pain is not really to offer a justification for the claim that I am in pain; it is simply to restate that claim in slightly different words. There is no gap between me and the pain, no gap over which I can build an evidential bridge. Others, however can have evidence, and know, that I am in pain. Their evidence, their basis for what they know about my experience, lies in how I act.

This alternative to Cartesianism may meet with some resistance. In part, Wittgenstein traces this response back to the seductions of the idea that all declarative sentences describe facts. If “I am in pain” does this, one might ask, how can it be that when it is true, I am not in a position to know that it is true? But what if “I am in pain” is not really a description? Wittgenstein writes of our essentialist “craving for generality,” a tendency that leads us to respond to the superficial structural similarity between “I am in pain” and straightforwardly descriptive sentences like “He is in pain” by assuming that both kinds of sentences describe states of affairs. But this tendency may be misplaced. The Investigations suggests that “I am in pain” is on all fours with “Ouch,” which describes nothing, but merely expresses one's pain. On this view, “I am in pain” is simply a refined form of pain-behavior. Once we take this view seriously, the role “I” plays is in this sentence is thrown into question. Does it refer to something, as the Cartesian assumes, or is it just for show, a linguistic ornament that helps produce a “complete sentence?” After all, nothing corresponding to “I” appears in “Ouch.”

In his Blue Book, a preliminary study that predates the Investigations, Wittgenstein suggests that in its uses in sentences like “I am in pain,” the term “I” does not refer to anything. In particular, it is not the name of a body, a person, a mind, or a soul. It does not refer to a separate entity, set apart from everything else in some way. This is not to say that “I” is not a meaningful word. Wittgenstein is trying to free us from the presumption that meaningful words must refer, so that we will be in a better position to recognize the import of the absence of an “I.” Nor does Wittgenstein replace this presumption with some other fixed requirement for meaningfulness. “Meaning” -- like “language” and “thought” -- is just a word we are entitled to employ in various circumstances. And there is no suggestion that we can specify these circumstances precisely.

In suggesting that “I” is not a name, Wittgenstein relies on the subtle observation that when one uses words that do refer to entities, certain kinds of mistakes are possible. Assume for the moment that “Michael” refers to a person. If I say “Michael is in pain,” I can be mistaken in two ways. It may be that I am wrong about it being Michael who is in pain, because, for example, I have mistaken Michael's twin brother John for Michael. I can also be wrong about its being pain that Michael is feeling. Perhaps, in order to gain my sympathy, Michael is just pretending to be hurt. Such possible errors are the order of the day where reference is concerned. But, Wittgenstein points out, it does not seem to be possible to be mistaken in either of these ways about whether one is in pain oneself. For the sorts of reasons given earlier, he does not think, as does the Cartesian, that this is because one has some sort of priviledged knowledge of one's own pain. For Wittgenstein, the impossibility of error when it comes to “one's own psychological states” therefore indicates that “I” doesn't refer to an entity of any kind. The separate self, deemed an illusion in the Tractatus, is in Wittgenstein's later philosophy a mere “shadow cast by grammar.”

Concluding Remark

The evaluation and influence of Wittgenstein's work is ongoing. Wittgenstein himself believed that his later methods were potentially liberating, but there is some evidence that he also thought that the kind of “therapy” they provide has its limits, and that certain changes in what he called our “form of life” must occur before we can solve -- or dissolve -- some of the problems that concerned him. Early and late, he was especially concerned that our obsession with explaining things tends to veil what one might call the miraculousness of life. Wittgenstein's dialectical, antiessentialist, antidogmatic approach can serve as at least a partial antidote to this tendency.

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Nonduality: The Varieties of Expression