Wittgenstein is one of the canonical writers I haven’t properly read yet, but want to, and not just because of the great name (although I stand by what I’ve said before: if this guy’d been born Adolf Dumfritz, his philosophical reputation would have had a much harder climb). Just from reading a bit around the secondary literature, I feel an affection for him: he came from a family struggling with all sorts of pain (including suicide), and I think was driven by the wish to really communicate and be understood. But communication, for so many of us and so many reasons, is intensely difficult. So he wrote a first major book, his Tractatus, in which he basically defined what it means to “speak” in a meaningful way. The upshot is that you should say clear things about external reality, and if you don’t know what you’re talking about—like for instance, if you’re rambling on about vague, wishy-washy things like religion or art–you should just shut up. This is the Wittgenstein who was “in the air” when I was at Yale in the 1980s, which is why I thought he was an intensely boring restricter-of-thought-and-expression. But it turns out that was only his Chapter 1.

Old Ludwig realized pretty much right away that philosophy, which of course was his thing, fell into the vague-and-wishy-washy category along with religion and art. That meant that if that kind of talking was going to be prohibited, he might be out of work. So he thought and wrote a ton over the years about how to revise his theory, and almost published the results but didn’t—-maybe because he feared no one would get it—and so his second big-deal book, Philosophical Investigations, only came out after he was dead. And in that one he pretty much said: forget what I said before. I realize that when you’re investigating, you should not think, but look. I love that: don’t think (off on your own about what could be), but look (at how people actually behave). And what you’ll find, said Wittgenstein, is that language only is what it is in some context. It’s not a set of signs that point to things; it’s a set of tools people use to connect with each other. To understand it it, it matters who’s talking, and to whom, and where and when and why.

Ever since then people have been going off about how cool that is and what all its implications are, and eventually I’ll actually read him and understand more of it myself. But for now, Wittgenstein inspires me even more for his methods than for the content of what he wrote. He wanted to figure something out, so he fully articulated his best guess; then he fearlessly subjected that best guess to an intense critique, which led to a far better formulation (which, of course, it was only possible to make because the first version had been so clearly stated).  It’s a procedure I think it would be good for a lot of us to go through, now, at this time in history when so many things we thought we knew seem to be called into question, the future is so uncertain, and we have so much at stake.