Stephen Mulhall on Wittgenstein’s Method

“What does Wittgenstein take to be distinctive of a philosophical interest in things? What is the typical character of a philosophical question or problem? According to the discussion of philosophical method in sections 89–133 of the Investigations, a philosopher is interested in the essence of things; she is driven by an urge to comprehend not the facts of nature but rather the basis or essence of everything empirical – the space of possibilities within which what happens to be the case locates itself. A philosophical question is thus one to which the acquisition of further empirical knowledge is irrelevant: the philosopher does not seek new knowledge in order to alleviate ignorance; she seeks understanding in order to relieve a sense of confusion about what she already knows. And whereas traditional philosophers tend to conceive of the essence of things as hidden from view, hence as having to be revealed, say by penetrating the veil of mere appearance, Wittgenstein suggests instead that essence finds expression in grammar – in the kinds of statement that we make about the relevant phenomenon. In short, our philosophical inquiries into essence can and must take the form of grammatical investigations; the essence of things can be rendered surveyable simply by a rearrangement of what any speaker always already knows – how to use words, what to say when.”

“Wittgenstein’s view seems to be that the kinds of statement that we make about a phenomenon, and the kinds of statement that we do not make, make manifest the kind of phenomenon it is; if we clarify the criteria we employ for counting something as a phenomenon of the relevant kind, we thereby clarify that without which such a phenomenon would not be the kind of thing it is. What we judge that it does (not) make sense to say about something makes manifest its essential possibilities, the kinds of features it must possess if it is to count as the kind of thing it is, as well as those features it may possess (and the kinds of variation of feature to which it might intelligibly be subject) without ceasing to count as that kind of thing. To know this is, in effect, to grasp our concept of that thing; and what more might there be to knowing the essence of a thing than that?”

from “Wittgenstein on Religious Belief,” The Oxford Handbook to Wittgenstein, Eds. Oskari Kuusela and Marie McGinn, (OUP, 2011), 757-8.


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