Wittgenstein Research Revisited

Conference at the University of Bergen, Norway, 12th-15th of December 2001
At Grand Hotel Terminus (Terminus Hall)

Wednesday, Dec. 12th: 15.00-16.00

Knut Erik Tran°y (Oslo):
Wittgenstein and the relation between life and philosophy

Two contingent facts are of particular importance in this context of my talk. In the first place, I am a moral philosopher. And secondly that, as a philosophy student in Cambridge in 1949, I got acquainted with Wittgenstein. And in spite of the fact that I never heard him lecture he left a very profound impression on me as a moral philosopher. I should add to this that I am not much of a Wittgenstein scholar, and partly, perhaps, because he did not write much about ethics. But he did have a view of life which, in a sense, manifested itself in his conduct "beyond" his philosophical activities. Cases in point: what he did during the two world wars. Behind the title I have chosen for this talk is the fact that it is difficult - perhaps impossible - to draw a line between his philosophical activities and his non-philosophical life. They seem to be very closely linked. I wonder whether this holds for all philosophers.

Basic to this talk/paper are two not very clear questions about the relation between life and philosophy. Q1. What does or can philosophy do to or for the philosopher whose philosophy it is? Q2. What can - or cannot - a philosopher's philosophy do for others? An illustration to Q1: Can philosophy influence or even determine the philosopher's political commitments? Case in point: Heidegger and nazism. An illustration to Q2: Can a moral philosopher use his philosophy to help other people "resolve" their practical moral problems? Case in point: Medical ethics.

The rest of my talk and its main content is reflections and comments on four points of departure taken from Wittgenstein. All four seem to me relevant to those two questions. (1) When he had finished the Tractatus, Wittgenstein was of the opinion that it is possible to solve (certain) philosophical problems once and for all, and that he had in fact done so. His subsequent life therefore ought to change radically, and it did. (2) After some time, however, he found weaknesses in his "final" solution to the problems of philosophy. Thus, in PU 133 he makes the following challenging statement: "The real discovery (Entdeckung) is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. - The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented (von Fragen gepeitscht wird) by questions which bring itself in question." Is this discovery something that philosophy cannot give him? Case in point: the present speaker. My two questions Q1 and Q2 have in a sense been not so far from tormenting in my own life as a philosopher. (3) In Philosophical Investigations, the mood of final triumph which dominates in the Tractatus, seems to have been replaced by a very different mood. In the Preface he says: "It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another - but, of course, it is not likely." (PU, Preface. Dated January 1945, before the end of the war.) No strong belief in the possibility that the philosophy that could "torment" the philosopher, could also benefit others. (4) Around 1950, in any case, he did believe that as a philosopher he had harmed several of his students. In answer to my question why he had resigned from his Cambridge chair, he said: "Because there are only two or three of my students about whom I could say, I do not know I have done them any harm" (as I have also reported in my contribution to Essays on Wittgenstein in Honour of G.H. von Wright, 1976). Recall Q2: to harm others by one's activities as a philosopher is a case of doing something "to or for" others. Supporting comment: Gilbert Ryle's obituary. This very pessimistic mood was the mood of a philosopher who on his deathbed six years later, said, "I've had a wonderful life".

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