Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) is one of the most interesting thinkers of the 20th century. I often keep coming back to his thought. Why? I want to get at this through a puzzle.
I noted in my last post the main things I normally think about – ranging from the dawn of human history to our current political and institutional transformations to the near and distant future of humanity. Call this range of topics the arc of human life. It ranges from about 200,000 years ago (when modern humans arrived on the scene) to a 1,000 years from now (which is about how far into the future my mind can meaningfully project).
So 200,000BC to 3,000AD – that is the range of time that feels immediately relevant to my life and my thinking. Of course, this doesn’t mean I know much about this time. Beyond the written history of the last 4,000 years, a great deal of the past is shrouded in mystery. And I don’t know a lot that scholars know – historians, anthropologists, sociologists, religion scholars, historians of philosophy, biologists, etc. Just as I have no idea what will happen a year or 10 years from now, let alone a 1,000 years from now.
But still, 200,000BC to 3,000AD is temporally like the Earth for me. There is a lot I don’t know about the planet I live on. I don’t know 99% of the places on it. I don’t even know a lot about the city or even the neighborhood I live in. But nonetheless my lived sense as a human being is as a person on the planet Earth. The fact that I know so little about the Earth (geologically, culturally, historically, what are all the cities and villages, languages, etc.) doesn’t mean the Earth isn’t the taken-for-granted background of my life. I have a sense of Earth as a planet moving through space and I am a creature on that planet – and this sense isn’t because of all the facts I know about the Earth or the facts I could get wrong about it. It is a complicated, interesting question how the factual knowledge of the Earth and the lived-background sense of the Earth are interconnected. My lived sense of the Earth is surely different from someone 5,000 years ago who didn’t know the basics of physics and astronomy. And yet some lived sense of being on Earth is something I share with the person from 5,000 years ago.
So here is a puzzle. Even though I don’t read him anymore, I think a lot about Wittgenstein and the importance of his philosophy. And yet: Wittgenstein didn’t have much to say directly about the arc of human life I think so much about. The main thrust of his work was in assembling reminders of how we talk and think, in this and that context. He believed a greater attunement to the nuances of our linguistic practices could dissolve philosophical questions.
In his work there is little discussion of world history, the actual historical cognitive development of human beings, or of the axial age. Certainly nothing about colonialism or about Asia or Africa or other parts of the world. He thought a lot about how to live a meaningful life, but he didn’t address how to be a good family person or about the future of work (even more: as a friend and as a colleague he often could be needy, angry and petulant). And he pre-dated the internet era, so his work doesn’t address questions of our cyborg future or AI. He doesn’t talk about global warming or the future of human beings in a hundred years, let alone a thousand years.
Why do I think Wittgenstein’s thinking is important even though he didn’t talk about the things I think about viscerally on a day to day basis? That is the puzzle.
One way to respond to the puzzle is the social justice warrior way: to ditch Wittgenstein as just a colonial era white philosopher. This is a non-starter. Though Wittgenstein’s family was one of the richest in Austria and he had immense privileges in being seen as a genius in his philosophy circles, it’s not obvious he can be just put in the role of an oppressor. His was an assimilated Jewish family which struggled to find a balance in many ways (three of Wittgenstein’s brothers committed suicide and Wittgenstein was often suicidal). He was gay at a time when it was illegal in England (where he was a professor at Cambridge). He had mental health issues, including severe depression. So no use doing the checklist of privileges against him (which I don’t find helpful with people in general).
Another response to the puzzle is the timeless philosophy way: to treat Wittgenstein’s importance as obvious because he is addressing universal questions of philosophy. On this view, it doesn’t matter that he didn’t address many of the factual, contingent issues of my life because philosophy is about abstract, universal issues. This is also a non-starter because it is not Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy. In fact, at the center of his view was exactly an aim to demolish such a picture of philosophy – as concerned with abstract topics of The Mind, Morality, Political Philosophy, Language, Meaning of Life, etc. Wittgenstein believed philosophy focused just at that abstract level was a confusion – in darker moments he treated it as a disease, like a mental illness. Hence his continual conflict with academic philosophy. In contrast to the happy image of intro classes and seminars discussing grand, abstract topics of the mind and morality, Wittgenstein saw most philosophy professors as inmates running the asylum. For him philosophy questions were not grand questions to be answered, but powerful illusions to be overcome. Not the kind of vision professors can easily sell to parents and donors.
A New Conception of World History
To answer the puzzle, we need to first see just how recent an awareness of the 200,000BC – 3,000AD arc of human life actually is. Of course, every generation has its own sense for the arc of human life. But it was only in the last two centuries that the arc expanded in the way we are aware now.
World history is nothing new. People have been writing it for millennia. But modern physics, Darwin and colonialism changed it in a deep way. Prior to the 19th century, the conception of world history was really the conception of the conqueror’s history. World history was told through the perspective of the empire that saw itself as the culmination of that history. Or as the history of the downfall of a civilization. The claim to it being human history as such was buttressed by treating the conquering empire as the central point of human history.
With Newton and modern physics we got a different conception of Earth – one described purely in mechanical and mathematical terms. Earth was no longer in the first instance the realm which the Roman or the Persian or the Chinese or the Islamic empires controlled. In seeing Earth first and foremost as a planet in the solar system, we developed a sense of Earth removed from the question of civilizational power dynamics, and so developed a different sense of the people on Earth and what we have in common.
The deep impact of Darwin was that the theory of evolution brought together the new mechanical view of Earth with the human perspective. The idea of evolution as such is not new with Darwin. An evolutionary picture of humans and animals was central to many ancient worldviews, such as that of Hindus. What was new with Darwin wasn’t the idea that humans evolved from animals. Rather, it was the picture of the animals from whom humans evolved. Even more: it was the picture of the Earth which produced humans.
In pre-Newtonian physics, the world, in an Aristotelian way, was seen as filled with form. Everything had its place and its natural path based on its essence. It was an anthropomorphic view of the world. The categories of human society – of each person’s nature and their place in society – are seen to be how everything in the world is organized. This was the vision of the ancient Hindus as well, where people were seen as being reborn as cats and insects and trees, because the whole world is shot through with similar categories of form. Post Newton this became a fantasy – just a way of speaking of the world. Not the intrinsic nature of the world, which was mechanical.
People often bemoan how the Newtonian view robbed the world of meaning. In fact, to the contrary, it expanded human consciousness – by giving a palpable, clear sense of how humans are all the same as physical beings. Darwin drew the natural consequence that what unites humans is our common history of how we came to be humans on this gigantic space rock.
New fields propelled by colonialists’ exploration and domination started to fill in the blanks. In the 19th and 20th centuries, modern biology, anthropology, archeology, religious studies, sociology and so on could start in a rudimentary way to fill in the gaps of the millions of years between apes and modern humans, and the tens of thousands of years of human history. This opened up a shared human history well beyond the standard picture of the “the ancient”. It turned out that Homer, Confucius, Abraham, Hammurabi and Akhenaten were not heroes at the start of human life. They were actually relatively recent in the big picture: 2,500 to 4,000 years ago, while agriculture itself went back 10,000 years and modern humans another 200,000 years.
So colonialism lay the seeds of its own downfall. What colonialists took to be the greatness of European achievements in science was indeed great – but precisely because it contributed to a new consciousness of the arc of human life. Colonialist Europeans thought the new physical and human sciences were a reflection of some magical European essence. But this was just a remnant of the old conquering empire vision of human history – the very conception of human history which the new sciences undercut.
Modern science wasn’t the product of only European reason going back to the ancient Greeks. Just as ancient Greek and Roman achievements built on Eqyptian, Persian, Indian and other civilizations, so too modern European achievements built on Chinese, Islamic and other empires in the modern era. Moreover, the new sciences showed that categories such as European, Islamic, Chinese and so on fail to reflect our human commonalities. That though the differences between cultures are great, they pale in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of years of history – the vast subconscious of our shared consciousness – which predates our oral and written histories.
This awareness that all humans have a shared history which goes further into the past than is captured in any origin stories within each civilization is a fundamental shift in perspective. It expanded our background sense of the arc of human life. It is an achievement akin to realizing the Earth isn’t at the center of the universe: that no civilization is at the center of human life as such.
As is so often the case in the dynamics of reason and power, it is a great irony that this new, deep, global consciousness arose during the age of colonialism and from deep within the heart (and mind) of colonialism. This doesn’t make the new awareness essentially European, anymore than writing is essentially Mesopotamian or the number zero is Indian or gunpower is Chinese or algebra is Islamic. All achievements begin in a particular place and they spread as others internalize and transform it.
Here we can see the limits of the social justice warriors. Like the colonialists, they see recent centuries mainly through the antiquated model of empire consciousness – history as just the history written by the winners. The end of slavery and colonialism, the women’s movement, etc. are seen as a way for the formerly oppressed to tell a new story. This is right in one way. But in another way, it is too old-fashioned, modeled on the picture of the oppressed civilization rewriting the history books after overthrowing the conquerors.
In the bigger picture, the liberation movements weren’t a way to replace the old stories with other stories of that old kind. The liberation movements were part of our human attempt to come to grips with the new awareness of the past few centuries of how much we are all basically the same – and of how little we still know our common past and so how little we still understand ourselves.
The same is true of the future. The political movements of freedom are one aspect of the broader shift in our picture of the arc of life. Some of the big changes happening – like global warming or AI or how the internet is changing the human mind – can’t be shoe horned into a post-colonialism narrative without minimizing how all of us as people together are confronting the transformations.
Thick and Thin Concepts
The realization that all humans are mammals and we all developed from hunter gatherer communities hundreds of thousands of years ago is a very thin awareness of our commonality. It is so abstract that by itself it doesn’t guide us through the identities of our daily lives.
Our normal identities are rooted in thick concepts such as family (the Vallabhas, the Wittgensteins, the Obamas, the Trumps, etc.), careers (doctor, lawyer, writer, athlete, etc.), religion (Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, atheist, etc.), nationality (America, India, etc.), political and economic ideologies (capitalism, communism, monarchy, democracy, etc.) and so on. And these thick concepts are rooted in different times in the past and carry with them different visions of the arc of human life.
Many of the core habits and concepts of family life trace back hundreds of thousands of years when for hunter gatherers the arc of human life was limited to the narratives among the thirty members of their tribe. The idea of careers dates back to the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and the rise of villages, when work started to become compartmentalized into the farmers, the blacksmiths, the priests, etc. The idea of religions as we now think of them – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc. – date from 4,000 to 1,000 years ago, as they started to develop a broader consciousness which went beyond family and cultural differences. The categories of nations, modern democracy, communism, fundamentalism, racism and so on date to the last several centuries.
People and communities therefore are like archeological sites, layered with different artifacts dating from different periods, created for different purposes, mixed together through the contingencies of time and place. Excavating a place where different communities lived over thousands of years one might come across a ceremonial bowl from a 1,000 years ago, and ten yards from there and deeper dig up a tomb from 10,000 years ago, and near the surface come across bones from a person who was killed with a bullet from a 100 years ago, and so on. And all of these remains and artifacts might have gotten mixed together because of weather changes, erosion patterns, people digging around for fun and so on.
Imagine archeologists who come across this site and want to know, “What are the eating habits of the people who lived on this land?”, or “What were the burial practices of the community here?”
They might ask, “What is this interesting society which buried a person who died from a bullet wound, and in the burial process they used this ceremonial bowl, and yet nonetheless they chose to not bury him in the tomb they made nearby?” They come up with elaborate explanations for why a single society might have chosen to act so bizarrely and what that shows about their way of life. Of course this is a confusion, driven by the false assumption that the different remains and artifacts must have been united in a single act of burial just because they are found near each other.
The archeological site has remnants of different communities which had different arcs of life. The people who made the tomb 10,000 years ago categorized the world in one way. The people who used the ceremonial bowl a 1,000 years ago categorized it a different way. The person who was killed a 100 years ago belonged to a culture which categorized the world in yet another way. The archeologist who is looking at the archeological site is trying to come up with a new conception which incorporates these older conceptions. The archeologist’s challenge is: how to do that?
To create a unified, encompassing story, the archeologist can’t just treat the whole site as reflecting the artifacts of one community. There is no one set of thick concepts that capture all the artifacts across the span of the 10,000 years. Thick concepts are thick in part because they are context and situation specific. The concept of family guides my life not because there is a generic concept which applies to all human beings in all times. The concept of family which guides my life is set to my time period and my cultural contexts, and the changes in the concept reflect changes of my time.
It is also no use for the archeologist to tell a unified story by using only thin concepts like “human beings”. That remains too much at the level of abstraction to explain the kind of thick conceptual activities involved in burials, cooking, art, jewelry and so on. It would be like trying to explain the activities of animals in a jungle using mainly the thin concept of “animals“: animals ate other animals here, animals slept here, and they gave birth to little animals here! Perfectly true, and it captures something of the basic form of what is happening, but it misses much of the nuance provided by concepts like lions, deer, elephants and so on.
As our awareness of the arc of the human life changed in the last few centuries, we are like the archeologist looking at his complex, layered site. On the one hand, we have the complexity of the diverse, thick concepts which define our lives. On the other hand, we have concepts of our basic unity as human beings, given in abstract terms, such as that we are all created by God, or beings descended from apes, who are all made up of the same earth matter and so on. How are these two conceptual structures – the thick and the thin – related?
Philosophy as a Struggle with Thick and Thin Concepts
A great philosopher is usually animated by a main deep insight. The insight is so deep that it sheds a new light on many facets of our lives. But at its core there is the deep insight radiating outward, and understanding their thought means tracking that insight.
Wittgenstein’s deep insight is that when we are engaged in philosophical reflection we are often like that confused archeologist trying to fit artifacts from different time periods into a single event. We are so driven – psychologically – by a desire for a unity of thought that we fail to see the differences that are right in front of our eyes. We try to push away the differences so as to fixate on the universal, but often it is only by facing up to the differences that we gain clarity. The archeologist makes progress when he accepts the possibility that the tomb, the ceremonial bowl and the bullet wounded bone do not belong to a single time.
Consider the question, “Does God exist?” When we think of this question, the mind races to affirm or deny, as if the world consists of just two kinds of people – theists and atheists – and we have to figure out who is right. The very generality of the question can lull us into thinking it is carving nature at its joints. A good deal of reflection – in everyday life and in philosophy classrooms – jumps head long into deciding whether the answer should be “yes” or “no”.
And yet there is an obvious truth which is in plain sight: there is no one meaning of “God”. God is understood differently by different religions. Some have a concept of “God”, but others mainly have a concept of “Gods”. Sometimes “God” refers – especially for believers – to a kind of experience or mode of living (faith), whereas “God” refers – especially for unbelievers – to a concept embedded in outdated institutional practices (the power hungry church or temple). For some “God” is tied up with the center point of their family practices, whereas for others “God” is the subject of abstract argumentation (proofs for the existence of God). Sometimes one thinks of “God” as so infinite as to be beyond human comprehension, and yet at other times one thinks of “God” as like a parent or a lover or a friend (angrily asking, God, Why have you done this to me?)
These diversity of ways of understanding “God” are out in the open, obvious for all to see. So which is meant when one asks, “Does God exist?”
The diversity of uses speaks to the wide variety of the thick concept of “God”. Where the concept of “God” is deeply contextually bound to the religion, culture, time and event at hand: whether it is Christianity or Buddhism, Egyptian or Chinese, 3,000 years ago or the present, whether used at a funeral or in a weekly sermon, in a classroom or on a battlefield. And yet when we ask, “Does God exist?”, the temptation is to treat “God” as a thin concept – one which through its abstraction applies, we think, to all people and all contexts. As if to say, “Well, you know, the real meaning of God. What we all mean. God! The infinite being who created us!”
Wittgenstein’s main idea is that a lot of philosophical reflection is a struggle with thick and thin concepts.
There is a continual temptation to be pulled in one direction or the other. On the one hand, to say that philosophy is useless because it has become unmoored from thick concepts. When one is pulled in this direction, one assumes one can simply let the thickness of a concept in a given situation guide us – as if the thick uses of the concept don’t have internal tensions.
The opposite temptation is to say that philosophy is great because it is addressing universal thin concepts like “God”, “justice”, “mind”, etc. to figure out their nature. Here one assumes one can simply bypass the murkiness of detail and focus on the abstract concept as such, in its essence – as if the thin concept carries its meaning entirely within itself.
Often philosophy is described as the ascension from thick concepts to thin concepts. That through reflection we give up the thick concepts embedded in our lived, daily lives and focus mainly on the thin concepts radiating like jewels in the book of nature. On this picture, the aim of philosophy is to give up the limited concepts of our day to day lives in order to acquire the timeless concepts which reflect the true nature of the world.
There is a good deal of truth in this view. But Wittgenstein highlighted what is left out of this rosy picture of philosophy: that often philosophy can feel alienating and confused because we become so attached to thin concepts that in reflection we lose touch with the contextual situations which provide a grounding to our lives and concepts.
Wittgenstein described philosophy as the task of bringing words back to their ordinary contexts. This can seem a mainly conservative task: as if our non-philosophical uses of words are fine on their own, and that philosophy is a confusion which we fall into when we stray away from those ordinary uses. As if Wittgenstein was like a parent telling their child to stay away from philosophers lest they get pulled into useless navel gazing! Sometimes Wittgenstein seemed drawn to this kind of pessimism about philosophy.
But there is another, more dynamic way to interpret Wittgenstein. On this view, to bring words back to their ordinary context isn’t to use them just as one would before becoming philosophical. Rather: it is to create new versions of the thick concepts so as to better meet the needs of our daily lives. Here a thinker is akin to a conceptual artist. We find ourselves in the midst of thick concepts which define us, but which also we feel stymied by. Thin concepts give us a way to step away from the thick concepts, but we can’t live our lives only with thin concepts. So when we step back into everyday life as we reflect, we transform the thick concepts to meet the changing needs and situations.
Philosophy therefore is conceptual transformation. Sometime it involves creating entirely new concepts. But often it involves transforming older thick concepts to give them a new resonance. To make them relevant to our times and to our lived situations.
This is both a personal and a social struggle. Personal: in that transforming our thick concepts means changing our understanding of who we are from deep within ourselves. It is not simply a matter of coming up with clear arguments or interpreting texts, but of oneself being the arena of the creative transformation of the thick concepts in our lives.
And social: in that it requires being open to the fact that everyone in some fashion – whether through philosophy or religion or art or music or science – is engaged in this process of reflective living. Some are more reflective than others, but no one is bereft of reflection as such. So in a society there are millions of people going through their own personal reflections, at various levels of intensity, and trying to channel that into social transformation. At any given time there is no one social transformation happening. There are dozens and hundreds of social transformations happening, often in tension with each other or only marginally in connection with each other. This is the terrain we find ourselves in and which we have to navigate through in order to create the social changes one wants.
On this view of bringing words back to their ordinary use then, philosophy is the internal engine of human conceptual transformation. 10,000 years ago the analogue of “God” and “Gods” were used in certain ways in early agricultural societies. But as some of these societies started to transform and become cities and then civilizations, the way “God” and “Gods” were used started to change, to reflect the expansion of the arc of human life involved in going from villages to cities. Then as civilizations started to become more internally complex, as in the Axial age, thinkers had to reconceptualize the core concepts yet again – and so “God”, “reason”, “self” and so on gained a more inner dimension in human psychology.
Solution of the Puzzle
When I used to read Wittgenstein, many times I would become angry and confused about why such an amazing philosopher was so silent about issues happening around him which were of deep importance: the end of colonialism, the new global consciousness, how technologies are transforming our lives and so on. Why didn’t Wittgenstein address these problems in a way that made it seem to me, as his reader, that he understood something of my lived situation?
The anger was driven by frustration that, institutionally, Wittgenstein’s silence was used by academics to perpetuate older thick concepts which felt out of date to me. It seemed as if academics less interested in changing philosophical structures could look to a great thinker like Wittgenstein and say, “Look! Thinkers as great as Wittgenstein didn’t read Indian philosophy, so why should we? Philosophy is in the business of universal thinking, not parochial thinking of Indian or Chinese thought.”
As a student I couldn’t see how this was a deep misinterpretation of Wittgenstein. This conservative use of Wittgenstein’s philosophy misses the deeply existential and spiritual dimension of Wittgenstein. The conservative academics read off the fact that Wittgenstein didn’t engage with Indian or African-American or feminist philosophies to mean that those traditions are not important, or at best can only be of secondary importance. But even if Wittgenstein in his life might have thought that (it’s hard to tell), it is not central to the Wittgensteinian framework.
On Wittgenstein’s view, philosophical reflection is first and foremost deeply personal. That is, a person begins their reflection from the thick and thin concepts they are immersed in, and which they are trying to balance, and from which they trying to create new, more meaningful ordinary uses of those concepts. Wittgenstein was averse to the kind of lazy generalizing about which traditions of philosophy are really philosophy that many people fall into. For on his view, there is no external fact of the matter about what is really philosophy and what isn’t. About who should be read on syllabi and who should be removed.
At root there is only each person trying to battle their conceptual tensions. For Wittgenstein it was one way. For Du Bois it was another. For Simone Weil it was yet another. For Aurobindo it was another way. For Aquinas it was one way. For Confucius another way. For Socrates it was yet another way. There is no one thing called philosophy all these thinkers engaged in, which can be neatly packaged in classes and transmitted from person to person so that they know the history of philosophy.
This is for me the continual attraction of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. He didn’t address all the philosophical concepts and traditions I find interesting. But he helped free me from old conceptual structures of my upbringing and my education by showing that the claims to speak of the history of philosophy and who are the great philosophers and who are not and which traditions are philosophy and which are not are confused.
To be a philosopher I don’t have to begin with conservative assumptions of how philosophy is an European invention and contort my mind to fit that narrative. At the same time, I also don’t have to begin with activist assumptions of what form a new global minded philosophy has to take and contort my mind to fit that narrative.
I can begin just where I am – with the thick and thin concepts, and their tensions, that I find in myself and which are driving me. And this freedom of thought which I take for myself, I also try to be mindful to let be for others, so that they can delve into the tensions in their mind more fully.
One of Wittgenstein’s main ideas is that we are fundamentally communal beings and there can be no such thing as a private language – or entirely private thought. So the conceptual tensions I find within myself are likely similar to the conceptual tensions others find in themselves, be they conservatives or social activists.
But our communal nature doesn’t mean I can simply read off our shared situation from my own mind. Our communal bonds are not simply facts which can be stated. They are shared forms of life which we have to co-create. Just as each person has to go through their personal struggle to clarify their concepts, so too we as a society have to go through shared struggles to create concepts for the 21st century.
This is both a personal and a communal task. Each person has to delve into their psyche and find from within themselves the communal bonds we can forge together into the future.