WAB: «Fragments» | The following contribution is an excerpt from David G. Stern: «How many Wittgensteins?», in: Alois Pichler and Simo Säätelä (eds.): Wittgenstein: The philosopher and his works, Working Papers from the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen no. 17, Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen (WAB) 2005, pp. 164-188. Publication on WAB's website with kind permission from the author and the editors (2005.4.7).

David G. Stern: How many Wittgensteins?

Who wrote the Philosophical Investigations: Nine answers in search of a philosopher


While there is widespread agreement about the overall character of Wittgenstein’s main targets in the Philosophical Investigations, the details are notoriously elusive. The book is an attack on pernicious philosophical pictures, such as the Augustinian picture of language presented in the opening sections, the idea that real names must refer to simple objects, or that there can be a private language. But where does this criticism of philosophical error lead us?

The principal fault line separating Wittgensteinians is over a question of philosophical method: whether or not radical philosophical change – putting an end to philosophy – is possible. Robert Fogelin draws a helpful distinction between “Pyrrhonian” readings of the Investigations, which see the book as informed by a quite general scepticism about philosophy, and so as aiming at bringing philosophy to an end; and “non-Pyrrhonian” readings, which construe the book as a critique of certain traditional philosophy in order to do philosophy better.1 For Pyrrhonian scepticism, at least as it is represented in the writings of Sextus Empiricus, clearly prefigures this aspect of the Philosophical Investigations, in its marshalling of reasons for doubting that any philosophical doctrine is coherent, let alone defensible. Fogelin reads Wittgenstein’s later writings as a constant battle between two Wittgensteins: one is the non-Pyrrhonian philosopher who battles the interlocutor: the coherentist critic of foundationalism who aimed to replace it by a non-foundationalist theory of justification; the other is the Pyrrhonian anti-philosopher who is equally dismissive of both foundationalism and anti-foundationalism.

Pyrrhonian Wittgensteinians read Wittgenstein as putting an end to philosophy, while non-Pyrrhonian Wittgensteinians read him as ending traditional philosophy in order to do philosophy better. According to leading non-Pyrrhonian interpreters (e.g. Hacker, early Baker, Pears, Hintikkas, von Savigny), Wittgenstein replaces mistaken views with a quite specific positive philosophical position of his own. On this reading, Wittgenstein offers us a form of post-Kantian philosophy, one which turns on the logic of our ordinary language, rather than the logic of mind: a logico-linguistic critique of past philosophy that makes a new philosophy within the limits of language possible. The Philosophical Investigations itself certainly invites, asks for, one might say, a positive philosophical reading, and anyone reading the source materials will find plenty of arguments for positive philosophical positions; most Nachlass readers give a non-Pyrrhonian reading of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. The result of his critique of previous philosophical views about the nature and limits and language is supposed to be a ‘clear view’, an Übersicht of the grammar of our ordinary language. Just how the Philosophical Investigations provides a clear view of grammar, criteria, and language, is controversial. But the point is usually taken to be that we can give a definite refutation of traditional forms of epistemo-logical scepticism: challenges to our knowledge of the external world, or of other minds are shown to be wrong (say because criteria, and the internal relations they constitute, are supposed to prove that the matter in question is known to be true).

Pyrrhonian Wittgensteinians (e.g. Diamond, Conant, Marie McGinn, Pichler, later Baker) see Wittgenstein’s contribution as therapeutic, a critique of all philosophy, including his own. According to these interpreters, Wittgenstein aims to get us to give up all philosophical views, not provide a better philosophy. On this reading, Wittgenstein offers us a form of scepticism that is aimed not at our everyday life, but at philosophy itself, with the aim of putting an end to philosophy and teaching us to get by without a replacement. Glock has called this the “no-position position”.2

This controversy is, in turn, closely connected with the question of what Wittgenstein means by saying that past philosophy is nonsense. On a non-Pyrrhonian reading, Wittgenstein has a theory of sense (as based on criteria, grammar, or forms of life, say) and this is then used to show that what philosophers say doesn’t accord with the theory. On a Pyrrhonian reading, there is no such theory of sense to be found in his writing, and to say that philosophy is nonsense is just to say that it falls apart when we try to make sense of it. Another way of putting this distinction is to say that Pyrrhonian Wittgensteinians believe philosophy, properly conducted, should not result in any kind of theory, while non-Pyrrhonian Wittgensteinians maintain that Wittgenstein’s criticism of traditional philosophy leads us to a better philosophical theory, albeit not the kinds of theorizing we find in the philosophical tradition.

1Fogelin, Robert: 1987 Wittgenstein. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London. Revised second edition; first edition: 1976; ch. 15. Fogelin, Robert: 1994 Pyrrhonian Reflections on Knowledge and Justification. Oxford University Press, Oxford; p. 205; see also pp. 3-12 and 205-222.
2Glock, Hans-Johann: 1991 Philosophical Investigations section 128: 'theses in philosophy' and undogmatic procedure" in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations: Text and Context, ed. Robert L. Arrington & Hans-Johann Glock, pp. 69-88. London: Routledge.