“In times like these”: Wittgenstein, a Symbol of Troubled Times

by Jose Ferrater-Mora, September 1953

Wittgenstein was a genius. This contention will hardly be denied by professional philosophers. Logicians will recognize that he was most successful in profound logical insights. Metaphysicians, on the other hand, will admit that all of Wittgenstein’s sentences quoted as meaningless by Carnap in the latter’s Logical Syntax of Language deserve close attention. It is also well known that the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus had a tremendous influence on the epistemological issues of the Vienna Circle and of the Logico-Positivistic School. But my contention that Wittgenstein was a genius has a wider scope. It means that he was more than a philosophical genius. He was, in fact, a genius of our age, a symbol of troubled times. If this has been acknowledged neither by English-speaking philosophers nor by Continental European philosophers, it is due to a sad circumstance. English-speaking philosophers, who know very well Wittgenstein’s deeds, pay almost no attention to such expressions as “troubled times.” It is not easy to understand its meaning when you devote the best hours of your life to teaching philosophy in beautiful university campuses. You begin to catch a glimpse of it only when you nose into the world. The average Continental European knows more about it than the cleverest of the English-speaking philosophers. Continental European philosophers, on the other hand, hardly have taken any notice of Wittgenstein’s work. Those who studied it were a handful of logicians or positivists, exclusively interested in the fields of Logic and Epistemology. As a consequence: those who know what the words “troubled times” mean, do not know Wittgenstein; those who know Wittgenstein do not know what the words “troubled times” mean. It was improbable that anybody could maintain that Wittgenstein was something more than an acute analyst of philosophical puzzles.

I do not know whether Wittgenstein himself was aware of this or not, although I suspect that he was. I have heard Professor Paul Schrecker say that Wittgenstein was a “mystery man.” It is true. It is also understandable. Wittgenstein did not seek for popularity. One even wonders whether he was afraid of the world and tried to follow the ancient dictumláthe biosas, live hidden! At any event, he abandoned the main doctrines of the Tractatus and became more and more interested in what we are now going to deal with: Therapeutic Philosophy. But he never forgot two of the statements contained in the Tractatus. One is: Philosophy is not a theory but an activity. The other is: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. They both form the cornerstone of his unique Wille zum Geheimnis— of his “Will to remain secret.” His obstinate loyalty to the two-mentioned apothegms is, in my opinion, due to this reason: at the same time as Wittgenstein worked out his “thoughts,” he was compelled to eliminate them. The ultimate tendency of Wittgenstein’s “thought” was the suppression of all “thought.” He seemed to understand quite well that thought is the greatest perturbing factor in human life. It is not a mark of health, but of illness. That is why it cannot be properly expressed. Wittgenstein discovered that “general ideas” cannot be said. Neither can they be thought. It is true that, according to his recommendation, you can say anything you like—provided you are careful. But, in fact, you say nothing whatever. Your talk is a “yes-but-no,” or a “this-you-can-say-if” attitude. What you “say,” is indifferent. In fact, it would be better to stop talking. If you cannot do it right now, it is because you are still sick, haunted by all sorts of verbal ghosts: the ghost of “general ideas,” the ghost of “meaningful thought.” All this is sickness. Of course, you want to be cured. How? There is only one way: Therapeutic Positivism. Instead of the psychiatrist, you should call the philosopher. He will be more amusing and, perhaps, less expensive.

What does it all mean? Let me try to clarify it. Of course, it all depends upon a proper understanding of Wittgenstein’s “latest” method.

The trouble is that such a method cannot be “explained.” It is not a philosophical method, it is a therapeutics. Besides, it is a nonsystematic therapeutics. Logical Positivists, who have worshipped Wittgenstein in due time, have been baffled by the incredible “looseness” of the new method. But Logical Positivists have always been more or less “systematic.” They also have been considerably dogmatic and have shown no understanding for human anxieties. All they have cared for has been to rebuke metaphysicians. How foolish! As a matter of fact, you can rebuke nobody. You can only cure, if you are willing to. In order to do it properly, you do not need to be “systematic.” You do not need rules. All you need is to be an intelligent guesser, a really clever fellow. This shows that Wittgenstein’s method cannot be explained, but only followed. Wittgenstein’s Therapeutic Positivism was not a theory; it was a series of “recommendations.” It scarcely appealed to our intellect; It rather appealed to our still subsisting consciousness, stirred by worries, undermined by anxieties. For many centuries this consciousness was considered as the typical mark of human nature. Socrates tried to convince people that man not only has problems, but is a problem. To a large extent, he succeeded. Many philosophers have since claimed that man’s greatness is a function of his permanent problematicism. This has been all right until recent times, when many people have wondered whether problematic consciousness helps you very much in facing the problems of existence. After all, you are in danger of travelling undefatigably around your own consciousness and of forgetting that there is something outside you—let us call it: reality. There comes, therefore, a moment when you need urgently to restore your connection with reality. Socrates was all right; he was willing to drink the hemlock, and he did. But most people are not willing to. They are afraid that too much emphasis on philosophical irony is the surest way to drive you to tragedy.

Wittgenstein’s “recommendations” had apparently nothing to do with this subject. Neither he nor his disciples wasted time talking about human nature, or about the problems of “unhappy consciousness.” After all, these were philosophers’ talks. For many years Wittgenstein was worried by just one problem: the problem of language. The analysis of language, of its traps, what has it to do with the eradication of human anxieties? It has much to do with it. Man does not always voice his fears through such acts as screaming, howling, or gesticulating. He often reveals them by raising such questions as: “Why the deuce did I come into this world?,” or, less, provocatively but no less dismayingly: “Is ‘7 + 5’ an a priori synthetic judgment?.” These seem to be philosophical questions or, as Wittgenstein and his disciples would put it, philosophical puzzlements. Since they are expressed through language, the best way to prove that they ought not to puzzle anybody is to remove the traps laid by language. It would seem, indeed, that language is the root of all philosophical puzzlements. The worst of it is that such puzzlements are responsible not only for raising memorable and unanswerable questions, but also for causing violent disagreements. People do not realize how many human beings have been delicately scorched only because they happened to disagree with some hard-hearted dogmatist about such burning issues as whether the world is one or plural, finite or infinite, existent or inexistent. It is true that many questions of this kind have been dismissed by Logical Positivists, helped, incidentally, by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. But Logical Positivists have been unable to keep pace with Wittgenstein. As a matter of fact, they have disagreed with classical philosophers only in ascertaining what you can say. They have assumed that if you want to be a philosopher you can scarcely say anything. But after many claims to rigor, they have relapsed into laxness. Their regime has been liberalized. You can now say a pretty good quantity of things, some of them even not entirely trivial. You will always find some decadent Logical Positivist, softened by tolerance, willing to uphold your claims. In any event, you will always be permitted to become a “systematic” philosopher and, hence, a follower of philosophical tradition. Perhaps you will be forced to deny that man must devote his life to contemplation and you will have to declare that he must give himself to action. Perhaps that which was formerly called “consciousness” will have to be renamed “behavior.” It does not matter. Having accepted restrictions, you will be allowed to do something suspiciously anti-Wittgensteinian: to solve questions.

For every non-Wittgensteinian philosopher, from Thales to Carnap, man has been an entity capable of solving questions. Even when the range of solvable questions has been conspicuously narrowed, nobody has denied that there are questions. Therefore, all non- Wittgensteinian philosophers play their game on a common ground. I will call it: “humanism.” It means that, come what may, you will always have an unalienable right: the right of raising questions. Now, this is precisely what Socrates had declared to be specifically “human.” Provided this right be upheld, man will never cease to be what Leibniz called un petit Dieu.

Wittgenstein was for some time a staunch defender of this “not-much-but-still-something” attitude. He was, besides, the father of many valuable restrictions. But he soon went farther than his descendants. These men were full of prejudices. They considered themselves capable of possessing “general ideas.” They called themselves, accordingly, “logical” or systematical.” They spent much time in discussions trying to forge logical rules, modes of speech, language-forms of all kinds and shapes. They became enraged over distinctions between meaningless and meaningful questions and fought memorable battles to establish dividing lines between the former and the latter. Suddenly some of them reached the conclusion that all philosophical questions are verbal questions. It seems that they approached Wittgenstein’s Therapeutic Positivism. They did not. To begin with, a real Therapeutic Positivist would not be so fussy about the distinction between meaningless and meaningful questions, between verbal and nonverbal questions. He would feel entirely freed from the worries caused by all questions as such. To be sure, he would still follow the rules of the game and would occasionally use the term “question”— meaning, of course, “puzzlement.” But he would deny that questions must by solved. Questions must not be solved; they must be dissolved. Therefore, you must stop arguing about languages and metalanguages. You must clear off the illusion that you can discover an “ideal language.” All this is, according to Wittgenstein, a mirage.[1] It is a remnant of “humanism.” If you accept being drawn by it, you being drawn by it, you will never get rid of interminable unfruitful discussions. It is even possible that you might become tolerant —too early. One of these days you will discover that there are some real philosophical questions embodied in the language of Aristotelians or even Thomists. Instead of accepting their tenets for what they are—expressions of philosophical puzzlement—you will assume that they express philosophical problems and that, therefore, they can to some extent be solved.

Now, philosophical problems need not be solved, but unmasked. I said before that if you do not pay attention to your verbal behavior, you run the risk of becoming tolerant “too early.” I meant what I said. It would be unjust to consider that a Therapeutic Positivist is intolerant. As a matter of fact, he is more tolerant than anybody else. But he is tolerant only in due time, when questions have been shown to be puzzlements, and puzzlements have been unmasked as intellectually inconsistent worries. Before it, you will be terrorized; after it, you will be freed. Once questions are dissolved, you will be allowed to do what you wish; you will be permitted to talk any language: the language of the Aristotelians, of the Heracliteans, of the Milesians. It will not matter. Philosophical questions become puzzlements and cause worries only when you believe that they are rooted in man, when you ignore that they are floating around us and that we can take or leave them. They cause anxiety only when we are enslaved by them. They will cease to worry us as soon as we realize that the best weapon against them is “freedom,” that is to say, detachment.

That weapon is precisely Wittgenstein’s method. It is not so much a “method” as a “bistoury”—a “mental bistoury.” The trouble is that it cannot be described. It is not “universally valid”; it cannot by used in the same way by everybody. If it could, it would raise again questions of method. Sterile nonliberating questions would be renewed and traditional philosophy reestablished. It is, therefore, preferable to decide once and for all that instead of facing questions you have to cope with worries, puzzlements, perplexities. Therefore, if you are by chance a philosopher, you will have to abstain from such things as giving classes, writing books, attending meetings. You will be unable to utter any “general proposition.” General propositions, being verbal functions, do not propose anything. The usual escape—the submission of questions to logical analysis—will also soon prove untenable. Such an analysis is based upon the unconvincing and “dangerous” predominance of general statements over particular cases, examples, instances. Thus, it will soon be discovered that “theories” or logical devices are uncapable of freeing us from any “question-worry.” No “theory,” no “generalized method,” will be capable of competing with a simple therapeutic activity whose end will no longer be to solve questions but to cure souls.

For a Therapeutic Positivist, trained in Wittgenstein’s supersubtle school of analysis, “method” is, then, a personal activity, intended radically to clarify the reasons of philosophical puzzlements and to pull out the roots of disagreement. This changes completely not only the nature of philosophical analysis, but also the nature of the philosophical profession. The Professor of Philosophy will have to become a sui generis “psychiatrist.” The student will have to become a “patient.” Burdened sometimes with the sense of intellectual sin, he will knock at the door of the Professor’s office. He will not ask: “Do you believe that ‘Hanibal and Plato’ is a good topic for a term-paper?” This is not an intellectual puzzlement. It is a purely practical question. He will rather ask such questions as: “Do you really believe that Being and Value are interchangeable?” I presume, however, that the best way to introduce one’s self to a Therapeutic Positivist is to state bluntly the whole of your worries. The “patient” would do better if he decided to say, for instance, “I am a Hegelian; I firmly believe that Being-in-itself will never become Being-in-and-for-itself, unless it spends some time out-of-itself.” The Therapeutic Positivist likes difficult cases. Of course, the “patient” might very well not be worried in the least by believing in the truth or in the meaningfulness of such a philosophical statement. He might even assert that since he became a Hegelian he felt freed from all worries. This seems to pose a big problem for Therapeutic Positivists. If their activity is justified only in so far as they can disentangle philosophical puzzlements, it seems that they should discreetly retire when the so called “patient” is not puzzled at all. But let us not be deceived by what the Therapeutic Positivist says he purports to do. After all, he never intended to say that the task of Therapeutic Positivism is to “cure” patients. As a matter of fact, the Therapeutic Positivist never intends to say anything at all: he merely purposes to act in certain ways which vellis nollis require the use of words. Therefore, even if the patient himself is not puzzled, he will present philosophical puzzles. Of course, the most frequent cases are those in which patients have puzzles and are puzzled by them. These cases justify the comparison of the Therapeutic Positivist with a sui generis psychiatrist. The words “sui generis” express the fact that the Therapeutic Positivist has only to do with intellectual puzzlements. Hence he cannot invite the patient to lie down on a sofa and suggest that he mumble something about the dreams he had forty-five years ago. Neither can he administer him a drug. The drug will perhaps clear up an abscess, but not a question. The Therapeutic Positivist, however, wants to clear up, to solve—or, again, dissolve—the problem itself held by the patient. He is not an empiricist worry-catcher, but a pure analyst. He does not need sofas, drugs and, of course, books; he just needs brains.

There are many ways of removing philosophical puzzlements, but only one method can be really trusted: skill. It is difficult to demonstrate to a philosopher that analogies between different kinds of expressions do not hold. If we believe some of his followers, this is, however, what Wittgenstein tried to do. He showed masterfully that if such an analogy existed, It would have been useless. It would have ceased to be an analogy and would have become a unique expression. He showed many other things, all of them wrapped in a peculiar mixture of clarity and mystery. Some of these things may by doubtful. But one at least is certain: that only with the help of a great mental skill can you demonstrate to a philosopher—not a “handy patient,” indeed—that he has expressed philosophical questions—that are inexpressible. In order to perform this deed, it is probably not enough to remove language traps; you need, besides, to pick up subtly all kinds of intellectual myths and hold them smilingly up in the face of the patient. Together with a great logical skill, you will assuredly need psychological finesse. Concealed in the various layers of languages and sublanguages, there lie about an incredible number of obscure motivations. They must be sifted out by purely intellectual means, analyzed and, last but not least, pulverized. Only at this final stage will the patient recognize willingly that his puzzlements lacked foundation, that his questioning was meaningless. He will acknowledge, in addition, that all questioning is meaningless. Relieved from this burden, he will no longer talk—or if he does, he will talk as if he did not—and will devote himself to “activity” and to “life.” His “mental complex” will vanish altogether. I do not know what Wittgenstein called this “complex”—or even if he really named it at all. Let me forge a name for it: the “Socratic complex.” Socrates, in fact, had taught men to behave in a manner strictly opposed to the one recommended by Wittgenstein. To be sure, the great Greek philosopher wanted also to relieve us from “complexes.” But, contrary to Wittgenstein, his “method” consisted in creating, in suggesting, in stirring up problems. In a certain way, Wittgenstein could be called the “Anti-Socrates.” Now, if Socrates and Wittgenstein are extreme opposites, they are extreme opposites of the same historical line. As all extremes, they touch each other: extrema se tangunt. No wonder they resemble each other in so many respects. They both used an individual method. They both hated writing. Socrates did not write books. Wittgenstein repented of having written one. They both were geniuses: the genius of construction, Socrates; the genius of destruction, Wittgenstein.

Yes; Wittgenstein was a genius. Knowingly or not, he mirrored our times more faithfully than most of the professional pessimists. Heidegger has tried to stress nothingness; Sartre, nauseousness; Kafka or Camus, absurdity. All these writers have described a world where reality itself has become questionable. They have, however, left unshaken the right of asking questions. In Wittgenstein’s Therapeutic Positivism, on the other hand, that which becomes questionable is the question itself. Nothing has been left, not even the ruins. No wonder we can consider Wittgenstein as a genial reflection of the gloomiest aspects of our age. He did “describe” this “age of anxiety,” this “age of longing,” better than anybody else; better than poets, better than novelists. Is it surprising, then, that an obscure Professor at Cambridge symbolizes more exactly our troubled times than a famous playwright in Paris?


  1. The present article refers mainly to Wittgenstein’s later “Therapeutic Positivism” and occasionally to Wittgensteinians. It does not pretend, however, to explain their “tenets”—which of course, do not exist—or describe their method—which is indescribable. It is a sociohistorical interpretationof a human attitude and nothing else. As such, it will probably be unacceptable to any faithful Wittgensteinian. For further information, the reader may refer to: B. A. Farrell, “An Appraisal of Therapeutic Positivism,” Mind, LV, 217-218 (1946). It will be extremely helpful to him if he reads the excellent articles by John Wisdom, Norman Malcolm, and G. A. Paul, written from a Wittgensteinian point of view. Most of these articles have been published in Mind and some of them in the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society.

After the present article had been written, a posthumous book by Wittgenstein was announced for publication. I do not think, however that my article will suffer very much from the new information that the book will provide. On the one hand, I am talking only about a phase of Wittgenstein’s activity. This phase seems, after all, to have existed. On the other hand, although it has been said by the Editors of the book that Wittgenstein had been working much on it in his latest years, he did not seem to be very hasty in publishing it. This confirms the view that Wittgenstein acted as if he were afraid of attracting too much attention. I find a recent confirmation of that view in G. Ryle’s article, “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Analysis, 12.1 (1951). Ryle says that “Wittgenstein attended no philosophical conferences; gave no lectures outside Cambridge; corresponded on philosophical subjects with nobody and discouraged the circulation even of notes of his Cambridge lectures and discussions.” Let me add that I pretend to offer in the present article approximately the same thing that Ryle pretends to offer in his: “a set of impressions, interpretations, of mere echoes of echoes.”

Ferrater Mora, José. “Wittgenstein, a Symbol of Troubled Times.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 14 (September 1953): 89-96.