Studying the work of Wittgenstein is quite difficult. Really, really difficult. But after nearly 6 years of familiarizing myself with the minutiae of his work, the hardest part has almost nothing to do with reading him or about him, nor with writing anything on him.
No, the hardest part of studying Wittgenstein the way I do is that those I meet who really do know who and what I and they are talking about immediately presume that we're speaking about the Wittgenstein represented by the academic status quo. There is a particular version of the philosopher (or rather, two versions –– each represented by opposing camps loyal to the respective 'early-' and 'late'-period Wittgensteins) that teachers like to agree upon whom resembles nothing like the man I believe held the secret to so many of the problems plaguing the world today.
Of course, actually running into such a person has become quite rare since leaving college. Yet in any case, the prevailing reaction to Wittgenstein's work amongst those familiar with his role in the history of philosophy is one of blind reverence: people know that they should love and respect the man, but openly admit to not having the requisite understanding to talk about him. To paraphrase a guy I met at a bar three weeks ago, "Anybody who tells me that they understand Wittgenstein is a narcissistic idiot." To quote Matt Russell, one of the creators of the popular webcomic Dead Philosophers In Heaven,
"I was going to do my honours dissertation on Wittgenstein. I spent pretty much all of last year reading from the Tractatus to On Certainty. It almost killed me. Reading Wittgenstein is like siege warfare – it requires total commitment combined with the expectation of intense suffering. You have to be OK with reading 80 pages of impenetrably fragmented argument without knowing if you are completely wasting your time or not. I think, best case, I probably understand about 1/10th of what he was on about, and yet I’m pretty sure he was right about absolutely everything."
This holds pretty well for many of the people I've known who tried tapping into the man's mind. But not, I think, for their lack of instinct or ability. No, I blame the way he happens to be taught, which has a very easily identifiable history, the roots of which are sourced from many early British philosophers of mind and language who populated universities like Cambridge and Oxford in the middle of the last century. Chief among them is a man named Gilbert Ryle, whom I mention in the small excerpt from my 2013-14 senior thesis I copied below.
". . . the ‘Ordinary Language philosopher' Gilbert Ryle, whose 1949 Concept of Mind –– which straddles something like phenomenology and what might be called a kind of neo-Behaviorism –– popularized the notion that Wittgenstein was attacking Cartesian dualism and “the dogma of the ghost in the machine”. Supposedly, Wittgenstein accomplished this by way of rigorously identifying something called “category mistakes” (another coinage of Ryle’s). Ryle took the notions of place and of perspicuous representation in Wittgenstein and ran with them, perhaps too far, making the case that Wittgenstein involved himself in what he calls a project of “philosophical cartography” or “logical geography”.
In the Rylean interpretation, Wittgenstein’s method was said to one which mapped language, one which which established the borders of sense and nonsense while at the same time drawing out the nodes of connection and “implication threads” which make up the systematic relations underlying ordinary language. Ryle believed that all philosophical problems stemmed from category mistakes, most of which stem from using the wrong words in the wrong places, and that there could be established one single logical geography which shapes the use of our language. Philosophy, then, would rest on linguistic solutions in the same way one solves a problem whilst playing chess. Now, insofar as the analogical nature of this explanation is easily forgotten (it’s an appealing story!), this is a heavily idealized notion which serves to reduce the Wittgensteinian project to a ready-made synthetic method he only occasionally takes part in. While it sometimes make some sense to suggest that Wittgenstein was indeed drawing out the connections between related words and policing the borders of metaphysical and everyday language (PI§116, §122 [Philosophical Investigations]), on the main it seems more that his project warns against certain misleading forms of expression which dominate so much of ‘philosophical’ language. The idea that Wittgenstein was a philosophical 'cartographer-policeman' forgets his extraordinary emphasis on sketching possibilities and on suggesting alternative analogies and examples [which therapeutically remind one that there are many ways of speaking about something beyond the one main idea our language seems to present ourselves with]. He did not so much classify “logical types” and category mistakes so much as he might suggest, for instance, that we only busy ourselves with the concept of ‘knowing’ in those situations where our language suggests to us that we might not know or should doubt ourselves.
When he was first published, it would have been easy to think that Wittgenstein thought as Ryle did, given that Concept of Mind was published just prior to the Philosophical Investigations (and to the same audience). Indeed, at the time it appeared to be the only existing explanation of what the famous philosopher had been up to these last twenty-odd years. But today we have no such excuse. We can no longer simply equivocate his work with the model of 'logical or conceptual geography', that vertically-minded 'Bird’s-eye-view' model which allegedly outlines the borders of sense, as if in stone. (Even the notion that Wittgenstein might have emphasized categories fails to take into view his focus on the pictures we habitually use!) In response to all of this, a man named Gordon Baker delivered an extraordinary contribution to the field of Wittgenstein-interpretation in his later essays (posthumously compiled as Wittgenstein’s Method: Neglected Aspects by Professor Katherine J. Morris of Mansfield College, Oxford (2004) [whom I had the luxury of studying with in 2013]). In lieu of an explanation, the quality of but one passage of his should speak for itself. (He even occasionally makes use of the word morphology”!)
"Appreciating the freedom exercised in the choice of the forms of representation of the grammar of out language is crucial to understanding fundamental conceptual shifts in the history of our thinking. … Wittgenstein himself constantly introduced new and variable demands on what is to count as describing grammar; e.g. … encouraging us to examine the sense of mathematical statements by reference to how we put them to work in science or everyday life (the diametrical opposite of Hilbert’s treatment of geometry!); … . Freedom to choose how to speak about how we speak belongs to the essence of [Wittgenstein and Friedrich Waismann’s] conception of clarifying our concepts. We have constant need of freedom from being tied down to too limited a morphology of the uses of language; freedom to look at things differently; freedom to reject (most?) descriptions of the grammar of our language; freedom to distinguish concepts; freedom to depart from entrenched and largely unconscious paradigms of how to describe the use of our words. Failure to appreciate this point of view, to acknowledge this form of freedom, is a fundamental blindness in most soi-disant Wittgensteinians. … On this conception, clarification of the grammar of our own language is liberating; it enhances our own individual freedom of thought and promoted vision … ."
(Gordon Baker: Wittgenstein’s Method, “A Vision for Philosophy”, p.195-6)
Instead of the visual-imaginative focused tack I take, I mention all this in the beginning of the Wittgenstein-focused portion of this website to provide an explanatory touchstone as to what it is I focus on differently than the traditional Wittgenstein interpreter. More than anything, it is the direction of this man Gordon Baker that I follow: an analysis of Wittgenstein’s methodological treatment of philosophy as one geared towards expanding the freedom of thought via Wittgensteinian therapy more than pinning down the rule-bounded guidelines of linguistic sense versus nonsense.
My major hope, however, is that I can perhaps now legitimately say: if you understand this... you now understand much more than 1/10th of what Wittgenstein was 'on about'! (As if 'understanding' could be so neatly divvied up in the first place!)