The Wittgensteinian Fallacy

Wittgenstein argued that traditional philosophy questions are incoherent and a kind of nonsense. For example, Descartes asks in The First Meditation if the world he is experiencing is an illusion. How does he know he is not dreaming or that an evil demon isn’t deceiving him?

To this Wittgenstein responds: “What nonsense! There is no such thing as experiencing the whole world as an illusion. There are particular illusions: experiencing an oasis in the desert, seeing the stick as bent in the water, etc. But in these cases we can recognize the illusion because overall we know we are experiencing the world. To show someone the bent stick is illusion, you take the stick out of the water. The doubt Descartes considers has no such grounding, and so is ill conceived: it has the outward form of a legitimate doubt, but that itself is an illusion. The doubt is only a confusion. The job of philosophy is to uncover this confusion, and free us from it.”

To see the flaw in this response, let’s distinguish between, what I will call, a status-quo context and a transformative context. A status-quo context is one in which a person feels at home in the prevailing social structures. A transformative context is one in which a person dislodges from prevailing social structures and feels that significantly new structures are needed.

Suppose a person is in a happy marriage and he is sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table with his wife and their extended family: he looks around his table and thinks that things are well, and as they should be. For him the situation is a status-quo context. Alternatively, imagine the marriage is on the rocks, and the couple hasn’t told their families about it, and they are all sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table. The scene is outwardly one of domestic bliss, and one part of the husband can feel that bliss as if it is real, as something he and his wife used to share; and yet another part of the husband experiences the scene as an illusion, as a cover for hiding the deeper reality of the marriage.

If the husband is genuinely torn about the status of the marriage, he might ask himself while sitting at the table: “Is this real? Or is it an illusion? What is real here?” In asking this, the husband isn’t wondering if the table is an illusion, or if there are really people around him. What he is wondering is: Is the love being depicted in this scene – in this marriage – real? As in, is it something lasting, something essential to who I am, to my needs and growth? In asking this question, the husband is in a transformative context. If he concludes it isn’t real, then he is acknowledging to himself that a change in the structures is necessary and imminent. If he thinks it is real, then he is content to keep with the status quo.

A marriage is a deep structural feature of one’s life: it organizes how one’s lives and what one lives for. When such a deep structure feels shaky, one starts to doubt the coherence and reality of one’s orientation to the world. The transition from a status-quo context to a transformative context gives rise to the sense that what was previously unshakable has now been shaken; that what seemed real before now feels like an illusion. Then it is natural to ask,”What is reality? What is illusion?” It is a way to ask: “Which structures should guide my life? Past structures I was comfortable with or new structures which suddenly hold more potential?”

Marriage is just one example of a deep structure. All kinds of institutional frameworks are part of the deep structure of one’s life, and they are the grand philosophical topics: religion, science, morality, art, justice, and so on. These topics are just different ways of characterizing potential deep structural transformations, both at an individual and social level.

Descartes in the 17th century, deciding whether to agree with the Catholic Church about Aristotelian science, is like the husband sitting at the Thanksgiving table, deciding whether to continue in his marriage. The main difference is the scope of the transformation: the husband’s transformation concerns mainly him and his family, but Descartes’ transformation is related to categories so central to a whole culture, that, whether they are aware of it or not, it concerns everyone in that culture. When Descartes wonders whether the whole world is an illusion, that is how it felt to him because he was in a transformative context. His philosophy was a way to make sense of the transformation, and to transition from the old structures to the new structures.

Wittgenstein altogether missed this dimension of Descartes’ thought. The reason is simple: because Wittgenstein falsely identified Descartes’ thought with how Descartes is taught in philosophy classrooms in the 20th century.

Wittgenstein was right that there is a deep incoherence in the way Descartes is currently taught. For Descartes is taught as if we are living into the same transformative context that Descartes lived through, as if when we read the First Meditation we are trying to have the same thoughts he had when he wrote them. However, the transformative context of Descartes’ time happened and that has become for us the status quo. No question anymore, at least in universities and many parts of society, about the status of the “new sciences”. They are not for us, as they were for Descartes, a new horizon, but are rather the unquestionable foundation of our modern, technological lives.

Given this change in context, reading The First Meditation without focusing on a new transformative context, gives rise to reading the doubt of global illusion not in a personally felt, transformative way, but rather in a literal way about whether we are actually dreaming or not. It’s like the husband has gotten divorced, and is in a new, stable relationship. Now when he wonders if his experience at the new Thanksgiving dinner is an illusion, without the transformative context being vivid for him, he is left with wondering whether the table, the chairs and the people are actually real.

Wittgenstein was right that this global doubt without a transformative context is incoherent: the very fact that one is embracing the status-quo context shows that the global doubt is but a vaneer of a transformative move.

But Wittgenstein was wrong to identify this kind of status-quo global doubt with what the great philosophers in the past did. Descartes, Plato, Shankara, Lao Tzu: these thinkers considered the possibility of global doubt as part of making sense of the transformative contexts of their time. That is what makes them great philosophers: that they embraced, rather than hid from, the transformative context of their times, and thought through the consequences of the transformation. They recognized the status quo as perpetuating illusion, and that the only way to be grounded in reality again was to go with the transformation.

Not seeing this aspect of the great philosophers, Wittgenstein’s philosophy hit a dead end. “Ok, how Descartes is taught nowadays is confused. What then?” Having conflated how Descartes is taught with what Descartes did, Wittgenstein had no option but to throw away all of the history of philosophy as also confused. But having thrown away the history of philosophy, there is no move into the future either; nothing that puts Wittgenstein in a line with the other great philosophers. Hence he was fundamentally a frustrated thinker: he wanted to be a great philosopher, thought he was a great philosopher, and yet he lacked the categories by which to put himself in line with the great philosophers of the past.

This is what makes Wittgenstein, and his philosophy, seem as if he is just about nay-saying but not building something constructive. Ironically, this is as incoherent as status-quo global doubt. Can there be global doubt about philosophy without a transformative dimension into a new way of doing philosophy? A new way which actually connects it in a deeper way with what philosophy has been through the ages? To claim that philosophy is an illusion independent of any transformative context is as incoherent as claiming that the external world is an illusion independent of any transfomative context.

Wittgenstein could have avoided the dead end by asking himself a simple question: What is the transformative context of my life, my society and my time such that the philosophy I am doing is meant to bring clarity in the midst of that transformation? For all of Wittgenstein’s tortured genius, he seems fundamentally conservative because he failed to ask this question, and so to give his philosophy a positive, transformative dimension which can inspire people to create new and better structures.

The cause was that Wittgenstein was too Eurocentric. He lived as if the fate of Europe was the fate of the world, and that whatever happened in Vienna or Cambridge spoke for humanity. The pessimism in his philosophy speaks to the general pessimism of Eurocentrism in the 20th century: the feeling that the walls are crumbling, and the expectation of a European civilization which was meant to guide the world was disintegrating.

Wittgenstein, like Heidegger, Foucault and others, did much to highlight the limitations of Eurocentric philosophy. He provided an internal critique of Eurocentric philosophy, sensing that European philosophy in the 20th century had reached a kind of impasse, that it could not continue in the path of European dominance the way that 19th century thinkers like Hegel took for granted.

But Wittgenstein was not able to develop a positive philosophy because he didn’t articulate a positive conception of the transformative context he was living through. He was a couple of generations too old to be able to say, the way we can say now: the (or at least a) transformative context of our time is that of a global, pluralistic society, and philosophy can live up to its ideals by embracing this transformative context and thinking it through without flinching.

5 thoughts on “The Wittgensteinian Fallacy

  1. Gautam

    > transformative context of our time is that of a global, pluralistic society, and philosophy can live up to its ideals by embracing this transformative context and thinking it through without flinching.

    American philosophers perhaps have a better sense for this transformative impulse, perhaps because of the American ethos of the “melting pot”, especially in the second half of the 19th century (Emerson and Whitman, and the pragmatists — James, Dewey, maybe Oliver Wendell Holmes). In this regard, it is perhaps a pity that philosophical education in the US became Europeanized and ended up reflecting the analytic tradition.


  2. AM

    You surely mean it’s a pity that the European tradition and the Vienna Circle, with it’s political awareness, depoliticized itself during the McCarthy era…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    This is an interesting issue. As shown in Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, James, Holmes and others were trying to deal with the/a transformative context of their times: the end of slavery. The pragmatists had a sense that dealing with the practical issues couldn’t be separated from theoretical issues, and so they tried to come up with a framework for what pluralistic society that saw slavery as wrong can look like. This created a form of thinking, pragmatism, which integrated theory, practice, social change.

    The positivists had a top down approach: you do the theory first (science and meta-science) and the practical changes will happen downstream. The reason for this wasn’t that the positivist didn’t care about social change. It was because there was a crucial difference between the positivists and the pragmatists. The pragmatists had a sense of culture that they felt they belonged to, and which they were trying to change from within; Dewey, for example, as an essentially American thinker. The positivists didn’t have this, and so it was more natural for them to seek social change from a more non-contextualized, non-internal to culture way; and not surprisingly, this is the role academia played for them.

    The current task, I think, is to combine the pragmatist and the positivist pictures. We need a pluralism that is culturally grounded, not (as the positivists had it) just imposed from academia on high, but which also is not (as the pragmatists had it) an attempt to create a philosophy which is distinctly American and culturally local in that way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. AM

      I tend to slightly disagree. I think recent work has shown that the history of Logical Positivism partly belongs to that of Pragmatism. At least the left-wing of the Vienna Circle. These people had a strong sense of culture: see the relation to the Bauhaus, their political activism (in Europe, mainly), the fact that a clear appreciation of modernism paralleled their opposition to metaphysics stance (more aptly described, in a quite pragmatist way, as a rejection of absolutism).

      Also, take Neurath for instance: he never belonged to academia…

      I share the goal of integrating pragmatism and logical positivism. I just believe that current historiography makes that task easier by unearthing a more nuanced image of LP.


      1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

        That sounds great. It’s nice to integrate the two movements by uncovering similarities between them.



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