This paper was originally submitted by fax to the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society in advance of a symposium I was unable to attend. I've archived the fax cover sheet as well.


On Ludwig Wittgenstein's Contribution
to a Pragmatic Philosophy
by Kirby Urner
April 3, 1997

Ludwig Wittgenstein's critique of the doctrine of name/object correspondence in the opening pages of his Philosophical Investigations, and swift gear shifting into a countering view of language as comprised of functioning 'mechanisms', or 'games', sets the stage for a new form of pragmatic philosophy.

Whereas LW's avowed purpose was to apply his philosophical methods to dispel 'grammatical illusions' bewitching some of the best philosophical minds at Cambridge, the question naturally arises 'what next?', i.e. 'what is the mission of this philosophy after the stage has been cleared of unnecessary befuddlement?'. An answer may be arrived at by reviewing two principal positive accomplishments of LW's philosophy.

Firstly, in freeing us from the misconception that 'meaning' essentially boils down to a set of name/object relationships, Wittgenstein restores importance and value to language. He shows our 'form of life' does not consist of reality on the one hand, plus a somewhat redundant labeling or symbolizing of this reality on the other. On the contrary, the actions of language interweave within the fabric of reality in ways far more intimate and seamless than suggested by any name/object dualism. The actions we take using the word 'red' and the sensory experiences we have involving 'the image of red' comprise a single process, with neither usage nor image rising to subjugate the other as 'merely meaning' what is 'actually meant'. Rather, meaning rests in actions, traces to judgments, and these are not further underpinned by any deeper ontology. And so our actions in language create and define our world, do not simply describe it nor redundantly pattern themselves after it.

Secondly, Wittgenstein reminds us of 'seeing according to an interpretation' as integral with 'meaning'. Our actions define our perceptions and, likewise, 'how we choose to look at something' is in itself an action with ethical proportions. Freeing ourselves from 'grammatical illusions' involves more than simply recalibrating our cognitive machinery - it means reschooling our perceptions, collecting experiences according to new gestalts. In this way, philosophy is both pragmatic and transformative. We begin to see how its methods might be used to improve our world, not just by countering the logical confusions we find ourselves trapped within (like flies in a fly bottle) but by opening up new possibilities, concealed from us by habits of thought, superstitions of every coloration. In short, through the application of this philosophy to the real world, we gain new freedoms.

In conclusion, by restoring our language to a position of ontological primacy, Wittgenstein has reawakened our sense of responsibility as ethical agents in the world. And by drawing attention to the importance of perceptions, using musical analogies and sketches to gear his philosophy to the language games of artists, he is linking ethics to aesthetics, the same connection he worked to establish in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Thanks to Wittgenstein, philosophy has been freed from a quagmire of specialized language games played only behind the walls of the Ivory Tower. The new pragmatism we have gained challenges us to tackle obsolete, broken language games across the board, sometimes countering these 'dying worlds' with 'new ways of looking' which bring 'new meaning' into the picture, along with a new sense of possibility and engagement.

Philosophy is once again a great vehicle for teachings, without needing to proclaim itself a religion or body of scientific theory. Language itself becomes our proving ground, and its increasing usefulness as a basis upon which to take responsible, competent, considerate action (as a 'source of certainty' in other words), becomes our measure of its success.

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