Philosophical Therapy & Humanism

At a workshop on Wittgenstein’s methodology which I was at recently, Marie McGinn made a point of underlining the ethical stakes of much philosophical work undertaken in a Wittgensteinian spirit. I won’t try and rehearse exactly what she said here, and will instead examine the topic of naturalism which she raised in this context, but some of what I will say, ultimately, I take to be deeply sympathetic to her view (but be that upon my own head and not hers).

The question of ethics came up here in light of Wittgenstein’s remarks about philosophical problems arising when ‘language goes on holiday’ or is like ‘an engine idling’ rather than doing real work. For if we take philosophical problems to share this form — however diffuse their manifestation and origins — then it seems we are led to a conception of philosophy as a therapeutic set of practices which simply “bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” (PI 116)

This makes philosophy look like a purely negative activity, and there are certainly places where Wittgenstein appears to embrace this idea. Take PI 118-9, for example:

Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving only bits of stone and rubble.) What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.

The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or other piece of plain nonsense and of other bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of inquiry.

So conceived, philosophy returns us to the everyday. We get back to baseline. This is not something just to be sniffed at since the temptations to fall into philosophical error are deep (and such inclinations are not products of stupidity), and the baseline we get back to is not forever fixed but shifts as our linguistic usage does, requiring some acuity in grammatical investigations to recognise. Nevertheless, something important can seem to go missing here.

Such a philosophy can appear very conservative, lacking the sort of critical function which has animated much of the best philosophical work. For those of us with an affinity to Wittgenstein as well as the post-Kantian tradition, through Hegel and Marx to the Frankfurt school, this presents something of a problem. How do we ensure that our philosophising respects the insights of a therapeutic approach and yet remains able to interrogate our everyday assumptions?

One attractive answer to that question would be to deepen our understanding of the sources of philosophical problems, not resting content with a linguistic turn alone. For language is, of course, a practice — one that takes place in a wider social world. Following this line, there may be room for a marriage of critical theory and therapeutic philosophy. For example, such an approach might try and trace a connection between the perennial temptation to forms of Cartesianism and the alienation engendered by the conditions of life in modernity. The upshot of such an approach would likely not be a philosophical therapy that tried to return the wayward philosopher to ordinary linguistic usage, but rather identified what social conditions would need to be changed in order to stem intuitive but misleading forms of thought. I don’t know much Adorno, but my suggestion here I think might end up sharing some aspects of his approach.

Without going this far though, there are still important tasks that Wittgensteinian methodology can be put too. Here, perhaps the most important is holding the line against virulent forms of reductive naturalism. Recourse to grammatical investigation can be a tool in defending a kind of philosophical humanism: a position which takes human life to be just as substantial and respectable as the domain studied by the natural sciences. Our ordinary activities are shot through with appeals to values, to our dispositions, to the contingencies of our history (a history which no less unfolds in nature than that of supernovae or trilobites). Anatomising these sort of appeals in the manner of a grammatical investigator can help us understand the place of humanity in a natural world, and can be drawn on in resisting the rabid reductive naturalist who wants to evacuate meaning in favour of mechanism. Bare appeals to the phenomenology of human experience are cheap, but grammatical investigation in a Wittgensteinian vein can help draw out the underlying patterns of human activity in a more substantial way. This sort of rich understanding of the role of our human qualities as something which are (and should continue to be) drawn upon without embarrassment in our explanatory endeavours can be employed to stave off the sort of naturalist for whom all this is merely folk psychological self-delusion. It is, of course, not enough to say that ‘this is just what we do’ and expect the reductive naturalist to be satisfied, but this can be an important first step in resisting the breezy dismissal of human attitudes as no more than mere projections onto an indifferent world which a properly scientific cast of mind can see through.