To the latrine with our doctrines!


My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.” 

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge Classics, 1961.

I’m reading Cora Diamond’s “The Realistic Spirit” in which proposition 6.54 is seen as the key to crack the code of continuity in Wittgenstein’s thought. I don’t know about that but I do know this: what she says resonates with why I always liked reading Wittgenstein. It’s not the famous proposition 7 calling bull-shit on philosophy that enticed me, calling bull-shit is easy. It’s the resistance to clear-cut philosophical doctrines and a view of reason as somehow beyond life as we know it which rings true to me.

Is it possible to do philosophy without leaving behind you beliefs that one p or another is true in a deeper way than pointing to the coffee mug and saying that it is on the table? In a way we’re all philosophers who want to believe that what we say matters in a way that is beyond being merely true. Philosophy, I believe (and I believe Wittgenstein believed all his life), is about showing that to be a terrible equivocation. A terrible equivocation more specifically on two crucial real-life common words: the demonstrative ‘that’ and the verb ‘to believe’.

Let me show you that. Maybe if you read on you’ll believe.

First: ‘that’. It’s a versatile little word, the eight most used word in English according to a wikipedia article. It is used in conjunction with pointing to point out what we are talking about. Imagine rearing a child or being stuck in a foreign land without the gesturing that that is that. As adult know-it alls we come to know ‘that’ mainly in another way: we’ll say that p and expect you to believe that p. The word becomes the currency of trading in our dearest propositions. After a while we believe that the world is made of propositions and instead of finding fault with the mug not being on the table when somebody says it is, we find fault with her opinions on refugees, because it is inconsistent with this or that other proposition we believe we can demonstrate that she holds.

That’s when philosophy needs to call bull-shit indeed. It needs to call bull-shit indeed if at any point a doctrine is put forward or if a person criticized for supposedly holding some such doctrine. Philosophy is resisting the natural tendency of human beings to split their reason from their heart – a most unreasonable thing to do as we all know from everyday life – so philosophy is resisting philosophy.

Which brings us to the verb “to believe”. Wilfred Cantwell-Smith (look him up!) in which he shows that originally the verb was used simply as “I believe” or “I believe you”. This is, I think, the way we still mostly use it when we’re not being argumentative trying to show that our doctrine is bigger than theirs. It’s the charitable use of believing without which it would be impossible to get through the day. In the modern period though we started to stick (and in our scientific times almost always stick) the word “that” after “to believe”. In a way we didn’t believe anything in this world anymore, not even if it hit us in the face as the sheer misery or joy of other people usually does, if it wasn’t a proposition.

Thats when philosophy indeed needs to call bull-shit, because propositions do not come alone. Propositions come in herds named doctrines and before we know it we’re reduced to a holder of a comprehensive doctrine X. Everything we do is seen in the light of X – and we even see ourselves in the light of X (or not-X if life plays tricks on us so we need to be finding us a new home to be classified in). Philosophy is resisting the natural tendency of reducing people to something that is not a person.

Wikipedia tells me that Wittgenstein would later on have recanted the ladder metaphor, he supposedly said: “Anything that can be reached with a ladder does not interest me.” It is not to hard to see why, if Cora Diamond is right, he might have been unhappy about what he said. The fact of the matter is that it is taken as just another step to some philosophical heaven where the final set of propositions rules as eternal unchangeable truth. Maybe he just thought he had lost the philosophical fight against our natural philosophy tendency – and our current doctrinarian world would show him right.

Still, I’m an optimist and believe in people. We’ll snap out of it once we put our doctrines in the latrine and flush ’em all out. Let us only use ladders to reach stuff we cannot get to without (like the moon).

Understanding other people: no ladders needed, language suffices.


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