Ash Catton

PhD Candidate, Clinical Psychology Student

“Logician, Heal Thyself” : A Therapeutic Reading of Wittgenstein’s Metaphilosophy

April 27, 2018

In his book, Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein claimed that “The philosopher treats a question; like an illness”.[1] This remark aptly summarises the philosophical framework that his later period of thought advocates. In this essay I will illustrate the therapeutic method that Wittgenstein had in mind when he used this remark, and provide examples of the kinds of problems that his treatment is suitable for dealing with. However, I will argue that there are some problems which this approach appears to prematurely dismiss, but problems that still exist nonetheless. Despite these limitations for Wittgenstein’s method, I will conclude that it remains a useful tool of analysis for some kinds of problems and should not be disregarded as completely useless.

Consider the following scenario: 

 Egbert suffers from agoraphobia, an illness of debilitating anxiety that prevents full and active participation in anything outside of his private life.[2] As is often the case with anxiety disorders, the manifestation of Egbert’s condition arises from hidden assumptions about what threats lie outside his home. Such is the grip of the terror of his anxiety that it is much easier to simply stay indoors at home and refuse to reflect on the assumptions guiding his fear. However, should Egbert decide to face his condition, he can either take medication to weaken the symptoms or he can engage in cognitive therapy to lay bare and gently face the assumptions behind his terror. After trialling medication for a few months, he found that the side-effects required more medication which produced further side effects, and the situation quickly became a fruitless search for the right balance of medications. Egbert then opted for cognitive therapy which eventually eliminated the anxiety and his entire condition.[3]

Wittgenstein claims that many philosophers are caught in the grip of a condition akin to Egberts. He says that philosophical problems arise from a “… disorder in our concepts…” which muddies the waters of thought and prevents us from seeing things more clearly.[4] He sees philosophers as trying to discover some new panacea that treats the symptoms which the disorder creates, and believes that this method is failing because the problem of disordered concepts is cognitive rather than one that calls for new discoveries (and new side effects).[5] Wittgenstein accuses philosophers of removing terms or expressions from their natural context and conferring some special status upon them, giving rise to nonsensical questions for study similar in content to “What does purple taste like?”. This is in the form of a legitimate question, but one where the colour purple is mistaken for an object rather than the property of an object which is how we normally speak of it. Wittgenstein claims the object of philosophical investigation is not the colour purple or the crippling anxiety but the prior assumptions which create these problems. Like therapy, the way out of the grip of these problems is by highlighting what McGinn calls the neglected details in our language.[6] This is what Wittgenstein is trying to impress upon us when he tells us that philosophy should not posit any new phenomena/theory because all that we need to deal with the problem already exists in front of us. Like Egbert’s agoraphobia, the most fruitful solution to philosophical problems are those which eliminate the problem by confronting the status quo. It should be noted that Wittgenstein is not trying to solve the problems of philosophy, as Savickey notes that mere description cannot solve problems but it can clarify states of affairs.[7] Such clarification, Wittgenstein believes, would result in philosophical problems dissolving like sugar in water.[8] 

This contrasts with the prevailing paradigm of the day, with the logical positivists/empiricists believing that the key to distinguishing meaning from nonsense in human discourse resided in logical analysis.[9] However, the belief that human behaviour was to be understood via deductive logic was one that, as Hartnack highlights, misunderstood the contexts of both logic and meaning.[10] Wittgenstein left the determination of meaning to the speakers of ordinary language to outline according to the norms and customs regulating their shared language. However, the fact that Wittgenstein believed it was not within the purview of the philosopher to construct theories did not mean that philosophy was dead. As with our friend Egbert, the philosopher must always be conscious of the possibility that they have fallen prey to some trap of mental disorder. Thus, the role of the philosopher was to be in a state of perpetual awareness, or what Hagberg calls philosophical mindfulness.[11] The philosopher was to be their own therapist.

Williams illustrates the two means of attack on our hidden assumptions that Wittgenstein uses when deploying his method: regress and reductio ad absurdum.[12] The fact that his arguments are presented in the form of dialogues might be deliberate. As Hagberg suggests, the voice of an interlocutor that Wittgenstein engages with is a symbolic representation of what the disordered concepts encourage us to say.[13] The resulting dialogue is like a conversation between therapist and client, where the therapist brings out the hidden assumptions and presents their logical inconsistency (via means similar to a reductio) for the client to be aware of. One of the most vivid examples of Wittgenstein using this method himself, is his argument against the existence of a private language for expressing individual sensations. His analogy of the beetle-in-the-box from §293 of the Investigations onwards forms one of the prongs of his attack.[14] His gentle wording of “if you say…” and “if you admit” coaxes the reader to be honest and forthright about their assumptions, while guiding them to the conclusion that such a language would have no practical function. Thus, if we asked, “is my red the same colour as your red?”, Wittgenstein would show us that the question is redundant given that we all agree that red is the colour of tomatoes, fire engines, and rubies and our private perception of these is not a factor considered in our normal use of the word ‘red’.

We now come to the question of whether all philosophical problems can be similarly dissolved. It is apparent that some problems do emerge from a disorder in our concepts. Consider the question “Can you step into the same river twice?”. A question which presumes that “river” refers to the material composition of a particular body of water at a particular time. The fact that we do not refer to river as though it existed for a few hours suggests that the term is not beleaguered by temporal considerations, and the question itself can be rightly dismissed. Furthermore, the ethical doctrine of moral particularism can be said to have derived from a Wittgensteinian method.[15] This is the view that takes exception to the demands of ethical schools such as deontology and consequentialism, by looking at everyday moral practice and noting that, like meaning from language, moral judgements are formed based upon the context or particulars of the specific situation. Unsurprisingly, this view rejects any uniform attempt to bind all moral judgements to one absolute principle.

However, it is apparent that few philosophers apply Wittgensteinian therapy consistently across all domains. Findlay suggests that this is because the descriptions that Wittgenstein provided deviated too far from our common understanding of the use of our own language.[16] Returning to the question of the colour red, we can say of Wittgenstein’s response to it that it fails to capture what people would believe that they are asking. Overcoming the semantic barrier, I believe the question is best captured by asking “If a television set was connected to your visual cortex and you looked at what you would call a red fire engine, what colour would I perceive the fire engine to be?” This is not an issue that can be analysed by grammatical investigation and calls for the more empirical type of methodology that Wittgenstein was so averse to. As Gellner notes, there are some philosophical issues for which their status as genuine problems resist any semantic analysis.[17]

Further, Gellner suggests that Wittgenstein’s method did not catch on because anchoring philosophical problems in common sense notions was impractical, and attempts to overcome these barriers was what gave rise to early modern philosophy.[18] While the names of objects and properties may not refer to our private perception of them, it seems natural to explore the possibility that those perceptions differ markedly in ways that our common language would not have suggested as possible. It is the exploration of such what-if? possibilities that philosophy concerns itself with, and the later Wittgensteinian work is no exception.

While we have been unable to support Wittgenstein’s intention to renovate philosophy according to the design of common language, it is nevertheless still useful for some problems. Some problems can be dissolved in a therapeutic fashion according to the confusion that created the problem. But it would be a mistake to claim that this method can be used across all philosophical contexts. Picking up the tool of grammatical investigation from the philosophical toolkit would depend entirely upon the context of the situation.


Works Cited

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013. doi:10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596.
Creath, Richard. "Logical Empiricism." In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2017.
Dancy, Jonathan. "Moral Particularism." In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, 2017.
Findlay, J. N. Wittgenstein: A Critique. London: Routledge, 2014.
Fischer, Eugen. "A Cognitive Self-Therapy." Chap. 5 In Wittgenstein at Work: Method in the Philosophical Investigations, edited by Erich Ammereller and Eugen Fischer, 86-126. London: Routledge, 2004.
Gellner, Ernest. The Devil in Modern Philosophy. London: Taylor and Francis Group, 2003. doi:10.4324/9780203011355.
———. Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Habsburg Dilemma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Hagberg, Garry. "On Philosophy as Therapy: Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Autobiographical Writing." Philosophy and Literature 27, no. 1 (2003): 196-210.
Hartnack, Justus. Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy. London; New York: Routledge, 1962.
McGinn, Marie. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations. London; New York: Routledge, 1997.
Savickey, Beth. Wittgenstein's Art of Investigation. London; New York: Routledge, 1999.
Williams, Meredith. Blind Obedience : The Structure and Content of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy. London: Taylor & Francis, 2009.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. The Big Typescript: Ts 213. Translated by C. Grant Luckhardt and Maximilian Aue. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
———. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. 4th ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 1953.


[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, 4th ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 98e.[2] American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2013), 217-8.[3] The parallel to cognitive therapy was inspired by Eugen Fischer, "A Cognitive Self-Therapy," in Wittgenstein at Work: Method in the Philosophical Investigations, ed. Erich Ammereller and Eugen Fischer (London: Routledge, 2004).[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Big Typescript: Ts 213, trans. C. Grant Luckhardt and Maximilian Aue (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 309e.[5] Ibid., 308e.[6] Marie McGinn, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations (London; New York: Routledge, 1997), 25.[7] Beth Savickey, Wittgenstein's Art of Investigation (London; New York: Routledge, 1999), 91.[8] Wittgenstein, The Big Typescript: Ts 213, 310e.[9] Richard Creath, "Logical Empiricism," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (2017).[10] Justus Hartnack, Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy (London; New York: Routledge, 1962), 94.[11] Garry Hagberg, "On Philosophy as Therapy: Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Autobiographical Writing," Philosophy and Literature 27, no. 1 (2003): 196-7.[12] Meredith Williams, Blind Obedience : The Structure and Content of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy. (London: Taylor & Francis, 2009), 13.[13] Hagberg, "On Philosophy as Therapy: Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Autobiographical Writing," 198.[14] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 95e.[15] Jonathan Dancy, "Moral Particularism," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (2017).[16] J. N. Findlay, Wittgenstein: A Critique (London: Routledge, 2014), 211.[17] Ernest Gellner, Language and Solitude: Wittgenstein, Malinowski and the Habsburg Dilemma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 168.[18] The Devil in Modern Philosophy (London: Taylor and Francis Group, 2003), 24.