Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Letting It Get To You: Why Philosophy is a Dead End

Letting it get to you. You know what that’s called? Being alive. Best thing there is. Being alive right now is all that counts.
— The Doctor, Doctor Who Series 6, Episode 4 “The Doctor’s Wife”

Now I can’t claim to have come near to understanding Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ultimate solution (or dissolution) to philosophy in his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. But it seems relatively clear that the takeaway message from the Tractatus is that philosophy doesn’t get you anywhere except to the place where you realize that philosophy has gotten you nowhere.

Wittgenstein’s preface to Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus lets us in on a profound secret, one which we should probably know before we start our graduate studies in philosophy (too late!). Once we solve all the problems in philosophy (as he has, apparently), we’ll come to realize “how little is achieved when these problems are solved” (4). In fact, once we are able to decipher the ultimately definitive truth behind Wittgenstein’s words, we will, according to him, come to realize that all of his words were just clever claptrap. “Anyone who understands me,” intimates Wittgenstein, “eventually recognizes [my propositions] as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them” (89). So according to Wittgenstein, the Tractatus is not meant to be only instructive. It is meant to help the muddled thinker get beyond nonsensical quandaries—it is philosophical therapy.

In his book Orthodoxy, Catholic theologian, novelist, and master of the one-liner G. K. Chesterton is similarly concerned with the limitations of philosophy. Madness, Chesterton suggests, is not a breakdown of someone’s ability to think straight. It’s just the opposite: “The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason” (24). The thing is, you can have a complete, self-enclosed explanation of the world that makes perfect sense, rationally speaking, but you might still be dead wrong. If you think you’re the rightful King of England, so Chesterton argues, the existing authorities will probably deny it and call you crazy. But isn’t that exactly what the authorities would do if you were the rightful King of England, just to protect their own authority? Everything in your life suddenly makes deadly sense, and everywhere you turn, you find confirmation that you are the rightful King of England, and the whole world is upside down and against you. How deep does this conspiracy go?! And so it is, says Chesterton, that the madman “is in a clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point” (27).

For Chesterton, this is something that affects more than just the “madman.” Taking careful aim at the materialist philosophy of his day to make an example out of them, Chesterton, in his characteristic rhetorical style says this: “The materialist is sure that history has been simply and solely a chain of causation, just as the [madman] is quite sure that he is simply and solely a chicken. Materialists and madmen never have doubts” (29). If we start to think that we’ve got a handle on how the universe works, leave it to Chesterton to remind us that maybe our complete rational explanation of the universe may not be as complete as we think it is. For Chesterton, it’s not a matter of how precise and complete an explanation is; it’s about how large it is (24). Once we realize the limitations of our narrow explanations and open ourselves to the possibility that the universe is large and mysterious, life takes on a new and surprising clarity (33).

I can’t help but wonder if something like this is precisely what Wittgenstein had in mind when he wrote the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. If we can get past the hope that philosophy will solve all our deepest questions, perhaps we can get on with our lives. Trust me, cautions Wittgenstein, I’ve found the limits of philosophy, and it’s not as great as you think it is.

Wittgenstein divulges the secret to understanding the Tractatus in a letter to potential publisher of the book Ludwig von Ficker: “[M]y work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written” (“Letters to Ludwig von Ficker” 94-95). The second part, according to Wittgenstein, is about ethics, and it’s the reader’s job to fill it out by living life in response to the conclusions of the first part. If we can climb up beyond all the meaningless problems of philosophy using the first part, we’ll be able to live life, ethically awake and more alive. The first part of the Tractatus being an enigmatic collection of logical proofs and definitions, it’s difficult to see how this provides a springboard into living out an ethical life. But I’d like to think that Wittgenstein is up to something brilliant.

Maybe if, through Wittgenseinian philosophical therapy, we’re finally able to peel back all the layers of muddled thought, we’ll be able to let life get to us, to be really alive right now. If we can let go of the temptation to try to distill the universe into simple propositions and be okay with a little mystery, maybe life will break through. And if we can let it get to us, maybe we’ve already started “writing” the first page of the second part of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Matthew E. Johnson is a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing his philosophical studies on aesthetics, hermeneutics, and discourse.

Photo credits: First photo by gfpeck. Second photo used via


  1. I am reminded of the famous saying "neurotics build castles in the sky, psychotics live in them, and psychiatrists collect the rent". :)

    I'm pretty sure that doesn't apply to philosophers because philosophers seem to worry that it might just as often. A psychotic wouldn't. Some variant of "what is philosophy good for" seems to pop up here pretty regularly, at least.

    I suppose that if one starts with the idea that philosophy ought to be able to reach a final end; scrape the bottom of existence, so to speak; the discovery that it can't ever do so would justify declaring it a dead end. What is it that causes one to start with this idea, though? Is philosophy defined as that pursuit alone?

    We have names for a lot of other thoughtful pursuits. There's mathematics, logic, poetry, physics, game theory, and so on and so on. Perhaps there are so many other pursuits now that any particular question has a specialty more suited to addressing it than philosophy, thus whittling the definition of philosophy down to only that which remains (perhaps wisely) unclaimed: the pursuit of unanswerable questions.

    Perhaps we should regard philosophy as not being about answerring such questions but rather as being about responding to them (and consequently to the world that presents them to us) in light of their unanswerability.


    1. Hi dz. Thanks for the thoughts! I think you have some great points. It seems to me that the question of what philosophy actually includes is central to whether or not we think it turns out to be a dead end. Just because systematic logical proofs may not necessarily tell us about why we should save a child from being hit by a speeding bus doesn't mean that logic is completely useless. It's just very limited in scope. So I wonder if there's a way to define philosophy that widens its scope and allows it to maintain its relevance and importance in other spheres of life. Maybe that's useful, or maybe it's just rearranging definitions and sidestepping the problem. I'm not sure what Wittgenstein would say on this.

      I like your suggestion that philosophy should respond to questions rather answering them and closing them down. It's starting to sound a bit like a healthy hermeneutic circle. That is, we can go into philosophy with an idea of how to answer a question, but we should be open to the possibility that perhaps our answer is incomplete or just wrong.

      A question that comes up for me regarding your suggested way forward for philosophy is this: what would "responding" to questions look like if it's not answering them? Are you suggesting something lived out in our lives or a more intellectual task?

    2. Good question. I still see philosophy as primarily an intellectual task but understood more as an exploratory activity rather than a terminally determinative one. It's already what philosophers do, isn't it? I mean, besides writing things about other philosophers.


      P.S. bazinga

  2. I hope you come to appreciate Philosophical Investigations just as much. I would like to see Dooyeweerd explicated with Wittgenstein's sensibilities regarding hygiene in language, to the end of having a Dooyeweerdian depth of understanding of the nature of language and the language games we play. [In other words: please write the book I want to read! :) ]

    1. That sounds like a fascinating project! I wonder what a Wittgensteinian analysis of Dooyeweerd would uncover about how Dooyeweerd develops his ideas about ontology in particular--Dooyeweerd makes some pretty strong claims that inform many different spheres of life. On the other hand, Wittgenstein might approve of Dooyeweerd's antireductionistic tendency against placing the analytic sphere alone in the most prominent position. Do you think Wittgenstein would say there's a lot of nonsense going on in Dooyeweerd, or would he help to clarify Dooyeweerd's position?