Early Wittgenstein is usually understood within positivist circles as setting forth the idea that the only meaningful statements are those that are possible to be known to be true or false; it must be possible to decide for or against the proposition by an appeal to Nature Herself. We present Her our sentences for review, and She either approves of our words or rejects them with a vengeance. For the moment, let us assume, along with the Later Wittgenstein, that this understanding of meaning as demarcating sense and nonsense is patently false.
This Later Wittgenstein agrees in part with the Würzburg School (Bühler, Selz, Külpe, and Koffka) and the Austrian School Reform Movement* in their rejection of the theories expressed in the Tractatus, along with the associationalist school of child psychology, which aligned itself with the implicit thesis of the Tractatus: a child may learn only through the repeated memorization of the atomic structure of words; instruction takes place only from without the subject.
This Later Wittgenstein says that we are not induction machines, meaning is not garnered through verification, and rote learning is a mistake. We have inborn knowledge or foundations to our beliefs and practices (referred to him as “hinge propositions”); there may be instruction from within. These new positions are incompatible with his meaning through verification criteria as set forward in the Tractatus. Wittgenstein concludes, along with Popper (and many other philosophers today) that (a) there can be no scientific language that is free from the confusions of commonly-used language and (b) we must know what a statement means before we go about verifying its truth or falsity.
Wittgenstein said that these conclusions must mean that the meaning of sentences is understood through their use. Meaning is as practiced through different cultural assumptions or established areas of discourse referred to Wittgenstein as “language-games”. These assumptions in turn rest on these foundational beliefs that we cannot doubt, our “hinge propositions”. This is different from Descartes’ foundations of the cogito, or the phenomenalist foundations in experience, but in the cognitive or cultural processes we cannot do away with, no matter how hard we try.
Wittgenstein then makes the following two arguments:
- After abandoning his picture-theory of language, in that language accurately describes a mental picture of a state of affairs, Wittgenstein says that if no atomic propositions mirror the world, then the world is not mirrored by language at all. Using words like “correspondence with the facts” are then unhelpful metaphors that do not actively describe their use. No matter how hard we try to express ourselves, we cannot communicate with Nature. We are circumscribed from the world by the limitations of our language. Thus, no language game is superior to another, for if the language of science is not authoritative, then none are.
- When our basic, common-sense beliefs are unjustified, and hence irrational, what is one to do? One must understand that the assertion that our beliefs are in need of justification is, according to Wittgenstein, to misrepresent their role. The meanings of words are not representations of states of affairs, but rather their role in social practices, called “language-games”. Wittgenstein dissolves the skeptical doubt by showing that there is only confusion over our epistemic concepts and their practices.
To criticize or justify statements are no longer philosophical aims for the philosopher qua philosopher: the philosopher was to describe the many sort of language-games and “forms of life” in which they are part. When philosophers breach the rules of the game, as when philosophers try to use the rules of our language to pull out apparent problems, they are mistaken in their job: the philosopher must not judge or criticize other language-games. If no language is authoritative, then all forms of language, all forms of life, are then conventional, which includes the basic laws of logic. Rather than manifesting the logical structure of the world, the rules were merely man-created tools.
These language-games are then incommensurable, for criticism and justification are linked together as one. At this point I must ask: while Wittgenstein’s theory of criticism as developed in the Tractatus cannot work, does this imply that any and all philosophical theories of criticism are impossible?
[*] Both groups, odd as it may seem, influenced Karl Popper as well. For instance, both Popper and Wittgenstein were trained and worked as teachers: Popper’s first published works were in Die Quelle and Schulreform on pedagogy, and he became a teacher for some time in Vienna; Wittgenstein attributed to the psychologist Joseph Jastrow the “duck-rabbit” example and spent several years teaching in Austria. His Wörterbuch für Volksschulen, a spelling and grammar book for school children, was even published as an officially approved text book in 1926.
These events make sense in light of Wittgenstein’s problem-situation as described above. Otherwise, Wittgenstein’s choice to abandon his work in philosophy at Cambridge and retreat to the Austrian mountains to teach children makes little sense. I conjecture that at the publication of the Tractatus Wittgenstein believed he had solved the problems of philosophy, yet he also accepted the ideas of the Würzburg School. Only after he discovered the contradictions between these two positions did he abandon his atomism and adopt by both empirical and logical arguments a sophisticated relativism of meaning through use set down by historical and social happenstance.
Why, might you ask, does Philosophical Investigations open with a thorough critique of Saint Augustine’s theory of learning and discovery in children? Augustine is a placeholder for Wittgenstein’s own previous theories of meaning as verification, the picture-theory of the mind and its relation to atomic sentences, and repeated inductive instruction from without. Or, at least I conjecture as so; I think it deserves far more credence than other, more popular, interpretations of his work.