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In Search of Meaning

Ulrich Arnswald

Philosophy and Life

Anja Weiberg
Traduction de David Wagner

Texte intégral

1To Ludwig Wittgenstein philosophy and life are inextricably linked, and ethical demands are made on both: the requirement for truthfulness in thought and action alike. According to Wittgenstein, truthfulness is the only means to prevent thought and life from becoming merely some artful trick, a Kunststück. To get an idea of Wittgenstein’s understanding of truthfulness, one first needs to go into various aspects of his later philosophy. Therefore, in the first part of this paper I will examine Wittgenstein’s understanding of terms such as world-picture, language, knowledge, reality, and truth. In the second part I intend to explain the importance of the concept of style, which in my opinion is central to Wittgenstein’s work, and will subsequently show how style provides the opportunity to avoid a relativistic position. Finally, in the third part I would like to outline possible requirements which may be expected of a philosophy after, and, in accordance with Wittgenstein.


2It was primarily in On Certainty that Ludwig Wittgenstein described terms like knowledge, reality, and truth to be dependent on a world-picture, thus making them lose much of their claim to absolute right and turning them into relative terms embedded in cultural and social circumstances. It is the mark of a world-picture that it ultimately rests on the acceptance of certain unexamined propositions; propositions which become fixed in our thinking as early as the stage of primary language acquisition:

The child learns to believe a host of things. I.e. it learns to act according to these beliefs. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakeably fast and some are more or less liable to shift. What stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held by what lies around it. (OC, 144)

3Certain propositions — those who constitute the foundations of our world-picture — are, as a rule, not called into question and are (precisely because they have not been acquired explicitly as something which cannot be questioned) difficult to doubt, if one can doubt them at all: “That is to say, the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn.” (OC, 341)

4From this follows with regard to our knowledge that it cannot be objectified beyond our world-picture. Rather, certainty is the basis of our knowledge, since the foundations for this knowledge rest on the social acknowledgement of specific unexamined propositions: “‘We are quite sure of it’ does not mean just that every single person is certain of it, but that we belong to a community which is bound together by science and education.” (OC, 298) The foundations of my world-picture are too self-evident to be voiced or even questioned, which does not prove their rightness, however, because “[a]t the foundation of well-founded belief lies belief that is not founded” (OC, 253). Our certainty regarding various things results not least from our answer to the question, whether doubt is a feasible option, and which consequences would follow our doubt: “From its seeming to me — or to everyone — to be so, it doesn’t follow that it is so. What we can ask is whether it can make sense to doubt it.” (OC, 2) Once we start to doubt the foundations of our world-picture we are in danger of becoming unable to act. If I lost certainty in my being human, in the fact that there is my hand, that the world exists, etc., I would hardly be able to act at all.

  • 1 “Can” is used here in the sense that a grammatical sentence would lose its status as a grammatical (...)

5Wittgenstein connects those statements on the foundations of a world-picture time and again with the grammar of our language. In his Philosophical Investigations he elucidates the function of grammar in the following manner: “Grammar does not tell us how language must be constructed in order to fulfil its purpose, in order to have such-andsuch an effect on human beings. It only describes and in no way explains the use of signs.” (PI § 496) Wittgenstein calls propositions, which deal with the foundations of our world-picture, grammatical sentences or logical sentences (in order to describe a language-game) (cf. OC, 51, 56, 319). In contrast to empirical sentences, which we can test1 and which are actually tested quite often, grammatical sentences are those “which have a peculiar logical role in the system of our empirical propositions”, for we affirm them “without any special testing” (OC, 136; cf. OC, 88). Clearly it makes an enormous difference whether the articulated statement may be proven and argued about, or whether the proposition in question contains certainties which are never questioned, may not even reasonably be called into question, or, certainties which, once we doubt them, take us to the very limits of our ability to act.

6Propositions reach the status of a grammatical sentence simply by their being used in such a way within the frame of a world-picture and its connected language games. Whether a sentence takes on the role of an empirical sentence or a grammatical sentence cannot be verified by looking at it, but is dependent on the context of the respective language game. Not a specific characteristic of the sentence as such, but the question of its usage within a community and within a language-game is of relevance for its status. One of the examples Wittgenstein gives in this context is the statement “I know that I have two hands.” It is not common usage to verify the existence of one’s hands (it’s something one usually doesn’t even think about) — one takes them for granted. If, however, one stops being certain of their existence (i. e. because one doesn’t see them) one would at the same time abandon trust in the method of verification (i. e. looking at them). If, for example, I were to wake up tomorrow morning and, for reasons unknown, fail to see my hands, I would not doubt their existence but my eyesight. On the other hand, there are situations in which the sentence “I know that I have two hands.” makes perfect sense and can be used like an easily verifiable empirical sentence. Thus, for example, if someone has been operated on, and one is in doubt whether the operation involved an amputation of the hands. If I phone that someone and he assures me of still having both hands, I won’t doubt him, since I assume that he has first-hand proof (i. e. that he has removed the bandages to take a look) (cf. OC, 23).

7We may thus sum up the distinction between empirical and grammatical propositions as follows: with empirical sentences we can claim knowledge, we can give grounds for this knowledge (in the sense that the arguments for our knowledge make it more certain), and error is an option. Concerning grammatical sentences we cannot talk of knowledge, our position is one of doubtlessness, for we exclude error and we cannot think of any grounds that would further our certainty: the proposition itself “is as sure […] for me as any grounds I could give for it” (OC, 111).

8Furthermore, the status of a proposition as empirical or grammatical is not fixed once and for all, neither are there just these two extremes of grammatical and empirical proposition — the transitions between them are fluid (cf. OC, 96). This dynamics is expressed especially clearly by the picture of the river bank, in which Wittgenstein begins to compare the foundations of a world-picture with mythology, from where he goes on to say:

The mythology may change back into a state of flux, the river-bed of thoughts may shift. But I distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself; though there is not a sharp division of the one from the other. (OC, 97)
And the bank of that river consists partly of hard rock, subject to no alteration or only to an imperceptible one, partly of sand, which now in one place now in another gets washed away, or deposited. (OC, 99)

9Of course, within this way of looking at things, what we consider to be true is equally affected by our world-picture: “But I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.” (OC, 94) According to Wittgenstein one has to come to the conclusion that the word truth may be used in a number of ways and therefore restrict oneself to the description of those various uses.

10Asked about diverse theories of truth (the pragmatic theory, the theory of coherence, and that of correspondence) Wittgenstein gives as early as 1931/32 the following response:

Philosophy is not a choice between different “theories”. It is wrong to say that there is any one theory of truth, for truth is not a concept. We can say that the word has at least three meanings; but it is mistaken to assume that any one of these theories can give the whole grammar of how we use the word; or to endeavour to fit into a single theory cases which do not seem to agree with it. (L, 75)

11If Wittgenstein denies at that time that truth is a term, his viewpoint has changed — in my opinion — by the time of his writing the Philosophical Investigations. Only insofar, however, as now his ideas concerning terms undergo a change within his conception of language-games, a change apparent in this remark (intended to express a dissociation from Frege):

One might say that the concept “game” is a concept with blurred edges.— “But is a blurred concept a concept at all?” — Is an indistinct photograph a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need? (PI §71)

12In place of an exact definition with clear demarcations, one ought — according to Wittgenstein — to be content with giving examples:

One gives examples and intends them to be taken in a particular way.— I do not, however, mean by this that he is supposed to see in those examples that common thing which I — for some reason — was unable to express; but that he is now to employ those examples in a particular way. Here giving examples is not an indirect means of explaining — in default of a better. For any general definition can be misunderstood too. [...] (PI § 71)

13The above remark already hints at it: to abandon the attempt of sharply defining the boundaries of a word, is not to be seen as a sacrifice forced on one by circumstances or the lack of a better explanation: “If someone were to draw a sharp boundary I could not acknowledge it as the one that I too always wanted to draw, or had drawn in my mind. For I did not want to draw one at all.” (PI § 76) Here one is immediately reminded of certain remarks from the Philosophical Investigations where Wittgenstein clearly denounces the search for the essence of language (cf. PI § 65). In place of general explanations Wittgenstein proposes a deliberate reduction to descriptions, to giving examples and showing the (variety of) usage of words.

14If we take truth to be a term without sharp boundaries, and assert that the word truth is used with various meanings, moreover, that what we consider to be true rests on unexamined, even undoubted, foundations of our world-picture, we will conclude that in respect to truth or falsity of propositions, Wittgenstein’s position consists in neither more nor less than in pointing at our ability to decide for or against a proposition: “Really ‘The proposition is either true or false’ only means that it must be possible to decide for or against it. But this does not say what the ground for such a decision is like.” (OC, 200) It is thus only possible to talk of truth within certain limits: “I want to say: it’s not that on some points men know the truth with perfect certainty. No: perfect certainty is only a matter of their attitude.” (OC, 404) In the end, the decisive moment is action itself: “Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end;— but the end is not certain propositions’ striking us immediately as true, i. e. it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting, which lies at the bottom of the language-game.” (OC, 204)

15In On Certainty, Wittgenstein invents a number of situations showing us people who don’t share our certainties. Among others, there is the example of a meeting between George Edward Moore and a king who has been raised in the belief that the world originated at the very moment of his birth (cf. OC, 92). An example, which demonstrates that there are not just those who share our picture of the world, people we would consider — hopefully just for a brief period — mad, if they started to doubt the longterm existence of our earth. There are the others, too, those who live in another world-picture with another, differing education. People who are not mad in the least, yet do not share all of our certainties. (One need not necessarily ponder the belief in a longterm existence of our earth, it may be a less “grave” manner; see for example OC, 132: “Men have judged that a king can make rain; we say this contradicts all experience. Today they judge that aeroplanes and the radio etc. are means for the closer contact of peoples and the spread of culture.”)

16The hope for the existence of objective characteristics to establish truth ought to be abandoned: “Very intelligent and well-educated people believe in the story of creation in the Bible, while others hold it as proven false, and the grounds of the latter are well known to the former.” (OC, 336) Here we have the encounter of two people with differing world-pictures.

17Arguments for convincing the other of the truth of one’s own view of the world will, as a rule, peter out somewhere — at that moment, where one reaches the foundations of the respective world-picture: “Where two principles really do meet which cannot be reconciled with one another, then each man declares the other a fool and heretic.” (OC, 611) In this connection, Richard Raatzsch explains the relationship between heretics and self-appointed orthodox persons in the following manner:

As Wittgenstein tells us, each man declares the other a heretic. Here »each« and »other« are variables for which the respective sets are those of followers of certain principles. In his own eyes each is orthodox, and every one who follows another principle is a heretic. It goes without saying that the latter considers himself orthodox once again. The term ‘orthodox’ cannot stand on its own in the world: One can, even in one’s own eyes, only ever be orthodox in relation to non-orthodox persons, be they either relevant nonorthodox, like heretics, or irrelevant non-orthodox, such as fools. If there is only one system of belief and each and everyone believes in it, it is rather trivial to say that there won’t be any heretics, but it is less obvious that there won’t be any orthodox persons either. (Raatzsch 1999, 98)

18The interesting thing in this context is the fact mentioned by Raatzsch that any self-appointed orthodox person requires a fool or heretic in order to define himself as having the right belief. This means that certainty regarding my view of the world requires, first, the existence of human beings who don’t share this view, and second, that I consider at least some of these people to be in error, that I define them as “heretics” rather than simply leaving it at condescendingly referring to them as “fools”. For I do not grant a fool the right to another opinion; a fool’s statements are considered too “unreasonable”, if not simply “mad”. The heretic’s views are much nearer to my frame of reference and thus it is easier for me to dissociate myself from them.

19The curious situation arises that a strong conviction regarding the rightness of my own view finally depends on the existence of a plurality of differing views (the supporters of which will be equally convinced of their rightness). Naturally, one may also be convinced of one’s view of the world in the absence of differing views, but it is easy to see that this conviction will be different from one that arises out of a dissociation from other views.


20Wittgenstein’s thoughts, as described above, reject the dogmatic primacy of one’s own view of the world, in favour of a construction of a world of plurality. Moreover, attaining the “one and only” truth appears to be impossible. One may assume that this would lead Wittgenstein to consider all values in relative terms, to hold up a certain arbitrariness. None of that, however: Wittgenstein takes in a particular position, which itself becomes possible due to the importance he ascribes to style.

21I want to show this in three steps: 1. By explaining the importance of the style of thought for Wittgenstein’s philosophy, 2. by referring to Hans Julius Schneider’s approach of emphasizing openness and movement among language-games, and 3. by presenting Wittgenstein’s thoughts on one’s personal style and the call for truthfulness connected to it.

22Conviction of one’s own opinions is not impossible in Wittgenstein’s view of things. Its primacy in convincing others is, however, not due to “better” grounds, but rather to “a kind of persuasion” (OC, 262), a “conversion”, by which one’s opponent “would be brought to look at the world in a different way” (OC, 92).

23There is the option of “propaganda”; the option, to propagate one’s own way of thought, to talk others into adopting one’s style of thinking: “I am in a sense making propaganda for one style of thinking as opposed to another. I’m honestly disgusted with the other.” (LC, 28). Its aim is to get one’s interlocutor to change his view of things.

24A usually negatively connotated term, “propaganda” deserves a short comment at this point: in my opinion, Wittgenstein does not use propaganda in its political sense, nor as a description of “convincing others by dishonest means” (i. e. by withholding information or by presenting matters in a tendentious manner), nor even by putting pressure on one’s interlocutor. Rather, the term “propaganda” is used precisely because one deals with certainties, not knowledge; the point here is to change a certain way of looking at things, not to correct a way of looking at things. Propaganda for or against a style of thinking aims at our view of the world (which is never simply held by individuals, but rather, by members of a community). In his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein describes propaganda for a style of thinking by example of his own procedure:

Well I should like you to say: “Yes, it’s true, you can imagine that too, that might happen too!” — But was I trying to draw someone’s attention to the fact that he is capable of imagining that? — I wanted to put that picture before him and his acceptance of the picture consists in his now being inclined to regard a given case differently: that is, to compare it with this rather than that set of pictures. I have changed his way of looking at things. (PI § 144)

25The style of thought lies at the bottom of grave decisions, like, for example, seeing the world as God’s creation or as having originated from a “nebula”— or, even the view that neither of both explanations may claim to be more rational, as Wittgenstein says in his Lectures 1930-32:

Causality stands with the physicist for a style of thinking. Compare in religion the postulate of a creator. In a sense it seems to be an explanation, yet in another it does not explain at all. Compare a workman who finishes something off with a spiral. He can do it so that it ends in a knob or tapers off to a point. So with creation. God is one style; the nebula another. A style gives us satisfaction; but one style is not more rational than another. (LWL, 104)

  • 2 Even if “well-founded” and “rational” are often defined in different ways.

26At this point, two matters become apparent: first, the grave consequences following from a particular style of thought, since one’s style of thought shapes one’s whole attitude and not only influences answers one may arrive at, but, prior to that, the questions one may ask oneself. Second, once more, the fact that explanations are in the end without foundation — a view that will hardly inspire most physicists and a great number of religious people, since, as a rule, both groups tend to consider their beliefs to be well-founded and rational.2 In this connection, Joachim Schulte points out that Wittgenstein’s thoughts lead to the conclusion “that while there is no reason to believe that we may attain absolute knowledge, all kinds of certainty we can really reach will suffice for our human ends.” (Schulte 1990, 116)

27Consequently one has to give up hope of ever knowing “the truth” and of convincing all others by means of better arguments and grounds, but the option of convincing others of one’s own view of reality still remains (incidentally, a pre-requisite for any change of world-picture). This option only differs insofar, as it is less assuming, lacking dogmatism and avoiding the claim for absolute truth.

  • 3 Schneider refers at this point to Michel Ter Harks distinction between “horizontal” and “vertical” (...)

28Hans Julius Schneider has made an interesting point in this context. Against the background of investigating the education of teachers for a potential subject concerned with “a non-solely Christian approach to ‘ethics, lifestyle and religious theory’” (Schneider 1999, 138) he dealt with the question, whether philosophical reflections might be of aid in convincing another person of a change in his habitual way of thinking. This change ought to be of a kind “that would render the new step not simply an additional viewpoint, an ‘enrichment’, but a modification of one’s whole way of thinking” (Schneider 1999, 142). Based on the assumption that there is no “holistic meta-language-game”, “by aid of which one can describe and judge all others”, Schneider in a first step refers to the vertical relations of language-games.3 Here Schneider follows Ter Hark in giving as examples the language-games ‘to feel pain’, ‘to feign pain’ and ‘to feign joy’. While the language-games ‘to feign pain’ and ‘to feign joy’ lie in horizontal relations to each other, one may discern a vertical relation between ‘to feel pain’ and ‘to feign pain’ inasmuch, as the latter “can for logical reasons only be played out, once one has mastered the sensuous language-game [of feeling pain]” (Schneider 1999, 148). In connection to conflicts between forms of life Schneider considers the above reflection as relevant,

because language-games which serve the expression of forms of life, typically need to be understood by comprehending vertical steps. To overlook steps of that kind or to ignore them leads to the so-called ‘ground floor fallacy’ (a term coined by Hark), i. e. illusions based on the false assumption that all language-games take place on one and the same logical level, thus on the one and only ground floor. (Schneider 1999, 148)

  • 4 It has to be pointed out that Schneider’s assumption of a common linguistic ground-floor is not exp (...)

29Based on this subdivision of language-games, Schneider reaches the conclusion that conflicts among forms of life are those, where people who co-inhabit the same linguistic ground-floor4 undertake various differing vertical steps, which are in turn either rejected by, or, incomeprehensible for their respective interlocutors. At this point, Schneider sees a central argument in Wittgenstein’s remarks concerning the frayed borders and openness of language-games (cf. PI § 68fff.). Schneider argues that these qualities show that movement between language-games is not an exception, a peculiarity, but rather an everyday phenomenon, something we are all used to:

We have thus at the centre a bigger or smaller area of succeeding common actions, which includes opportunities for an extension beyond its habitual limits, limits which most of the time are not made explicit. It seems important to me that Wittgenstein views this openness not as a fault, as an obstacle in the learning of language-games which ought to be explained away by psychological theories about (‘the incompleteness of’) speaking versus its more exact foundation in ‘meaning’. The ability to actively take this openness and to make use of it time and again, to expand the possibilities for action is — on the contrary — from the very beginning a main ingredient of any linguistic competence. (Schneider 1999, 146)

30Going back to our initial question, we now see that according to this interpretation various forms of life need not be fundamentally incompatible, conflicts between forms of life do not seem unsolveable in general.

31It is with a certain amount of prudence that Schneider draws his conclusions, pointing out that it may be at times very difficult to convince another person to change his style of thought, however, that it is vital for the general procedure of solving conflicts between forms of life “whether we consider a task familiar to us from everyday little steps, or whether we view it as a problem for which we may never find a solution due to philosophical reasons.” (Schneider 1999, 152) By aid of this starting point one may, on the one hand, avoid a dogmatic position, while on the other hand avoiding to see matters solely in relative terms. The only relativistic concession one would have to make, albeit a “rather harmless” one, would be the concession that one could not take a totally neutral position — inasmuch, as

each of us can only ever articulate matters within the medium of that linguistic form in which he has learnt to move as his ‘element of life’ in the life he has lead so far. [...] But this kind of movement, we need to make in order to understand forms of life foreign to ours, is, however, deeply familiar to us in its simplest expression: it is the ordinary movement among language-games, for which we need not revert to a meta-language-game. The nonexistence of the latter does in no way cause any special problems. Not having an ‘objective’ rule does not invalidate the viewpoint we have reached according to our abilities, a viewpoint always valid for the respective moment only. (Schneider 1999, 153)

32In the end, it is about a reduction of the absolute claim regarding one’s own view of the world, connected with, on the other hand, more openness towards things that had been foreign up to now.

33This brings me to the third part, dealing with Wittgenstein’s remarks on the personal style of a person. In this context, I would like to point out that these remarks are not treated in writings Wittgenstein intended to publish, but are found mainly in Culture and Value and in his Diaries (MT). Accordingly, one needs to be wary of connecting Wittgenstein’s thoughts on personal style to his philosophy.

34In these remarks, Wittgenstein combines his thoughts on truth, knowledge and reality with a personal demand for truthfulness; a claim for authenticity which, in essence, makes up his usage of the word truth: “No one can speak the truth, if he has still not mastered himself. He cannot speak it; — but not, because he is not clever enough yet.” (CV 1939 – 1940, 78) What is asked for is to stop lying to oneself, to give up any self-deception — a way of action that demands courage. “Without a little courage one can’t even write a sensible remark about oneself.” (MT 26.4.30) Courage is not supposed to mean a special readiness to take risks, rather, it is — according to Wittgenstein — a sign of originality (cf. CV 1939 – 1940, 79) and “the beginnings of good originality are already there if [one does] not want to be something [one] is not […]” (CV 1947, 118).

35This demand Wittgenstein makes on himself is one of authenticity in life and thought. Language and action are here, as elsewhere, closely knit. To realize this demand, is a difficult and time-consuming process, in the course of which one encounters many a trap, as Wittgenstein expresses by complaining about his own vanity:

When I say I would like to discard vanity, it is questionable whether my wanting this isn’t yet again only a sort of vanity. I am vain & and insofar as I am vain, my wishes for improvement are vain, too. I would then like to be like such & such person who was not vain & whom I like, & in my mind I already estimate the benefit which I would have from “discarding” vanity. As long as one is on stage, one is an actor after all, regardless of what one does. (MT 15.[11 or 12.31])

36Wittgenstein illustrates these thoughts on one’s personal style not least by using a picture in which he attempts to describe himself:

I could almost see myself as an amoral nucleus to which the moral concepts of other people stick easily.
So that, what I am saying is eo ipso never my own, since this nucleus (I picture it as a white dead bundle) cannot talk. Instead, printed sheets stick to it. These then talk; of course, not in their original state but mixed up with other sheets & influenced by the position into which they are brought by the nucleus. (MT 31.10.[31])

37For other people, however, the state of a person may not be discerned as easy as by that person himself (provided he thinks about it). Once again, Wittgenstein makes use of a picture to describe these difficulties: he compares people with “balls”, some of which consist of “genuine gold”, some of which are on the outside covered by some “worthless material”, and finally some, which apart from their deceptive gilding contain but “a kernel of genuine gold” or else only “dirt”.

But how difficult it is to judge such a person. One finds him out, discovering that the first layer is false & says: “so he is worthless” for no one believes that there can be falsely gilded genuine gild. Or one finds the trash under the false gilding & says: “Of course! That was to be expected.” But that there should then still be genuine gold hidden in this trash, that is difficult to suppose. (MT 31.10.[31])

38This shows clearly that to recognize such distinctions in the supposedly alike or, to see similarities in the supposedly different is not easy at all and requires a lot of time.

39Furthermore, one can easily have a mistaken self-image, which would become apparent in one’s style: “If I perform to myself [...] then it’s this that the style expresses. And the style cannot be my own. If you are unwilling to know what you are, your writing is a form of deceit.” (MS 120, quoted after Rhees, 193) If one does not stop performing, one will — according to Wittgenstein — never arrive at truth in the sense of truthfulness. The search for truth is thus defined by ethical criteria; it is not alone knowledge but most of all dealing with that knowledge which leads to truth: “That something occurs to you is a gift from heaven, but it depends on what you make of it.” (MT 13.[10.31]) By this, language and action are inextricably linked. Life is to Wittgenstein indispensable prerequisite to any philosophy: “For first one must live, — then one can also philosophize.” (MT 1.3.[37]) The way of life one leads influences thought as well as one’s language: “But if one lives differently, one speaks differently. With a new life one learns new language-games.” (MT 4.2.[37]) The language-games are not the only ones to change, once one leads a different life, the style, too, is a different one — and it is exactly by looking at the style of a person that one may recognise how seriously a person takes the demand for truthfulness. Style is where one can see whether a person’s objective in life is defined, for example, by comfort or amusement; or whether the person tends to take life “seriously” and accordingly comes to certain considerations or at least aims at them. Equally one may discover how far a gap there is between life and writing. Style is thus not just a rhetorical accessory, but closely linked to life and thought of a person: “’Le style c’est l’homme.’ ‘Le style c’est l’homme même.’ The first expression has cheap epigrammatic brevity. The second, correct version opens up quite a different perspective. It says that a man’s style is a picture of him.” (CV 1949, 149f.)

40This last remark about style as a picture of man becomes clearer once one looks at the passage from Georges L. L. Buffon’s Discours à l’Académie Française (also known as Discours sur le style) from 1753, which Wittgenstein knew, cherished and referred to (cf. CV, 18). To write a good style, one ought to consider the following, according to Buffon:

  • 5 “And finally, if one writes as one thinks, if one is convinced of that one wants to convince others (...)

Enfin, si l’on écrit comme l’on pense, si l’on est convaincu de ce que l’on veut persuader, cette bonne foi avec soi – même, qui fait la bienséance pour les autres et la vérité du style, lui fera produire tout son effet, pourvu que cette persuasion intérieure ne se marque pas par un enthousiasme trop fort, et qu’il y ait partout plus de candeur que de confiance, plus de raison que de chaleur. (Buffon, 1939, S. 72)5

41Here already it becomes apparent that there is a close connection between Buffon’s view and Wittgenstein’s remarks on truth and authenticity, on the relations between writing and life, which become visible in style. The fundamental motif in both is the demand for authenticity. Buffon places the style of a work above the “uniqueness of facts” and the “novelty of discoveries” (Buffon 1939, 73), which make up the subject matter of a work, since the latter is accessible to all:

  • 6 “These matters are outside of man, the style is man himself. The style can thus neither disengage, (...)

Ces choses sont hors de l’homme, le style est l’homme même: Le style ne peut donc ni s’enlever, ni se transporter, ni s’altérer: s’il est élevé, noble, sublime, l’auteur sera également admiré dans tous les temps [...] (Buffon 1939, 73).6

42Just as with Wittgenstein, style is closely linked to the person. In Wittgenstein, this distinctive meaning of style shows itself among others in a remark on genius in which we encounter once more the ethical demand for life and writing of man: “Genius is talent in which character makes itself heard. [...] This is no mere intellectual skeleton, but a complete human being. That too is why the greatness of what a man writes depends on everything else he writes and does.” (CV 1948, 65)


43Wittgenstein’s demand for a constant examination of one’s own thoughts and way of life seems to me to be an interesting starting point for a reflection on philosophy and its philosophers. If one takes Wittgenstein’s remark on the inseparableness of philosophy and life seriously, each entirely “theoretical” or purely academic philosophy (provided such a thing is possible at all, if not, at least each philosophy considered, or else, aimed at by its proponents as purely “theoretical” or academic) would be a kind of deceit or delusion. A philosophy of that kind is lacking life. If life or philosophy is lacking truthfulness, each remains plain artifice, as Wittgenstein explains regarding ethics: “An artful ethical trick is something that I perform for others, or also only for me (myself), in order to show what I can do.” (MT 7.[11 or 12.31]) Philosophy and life alike are connected to an ethical criterion. The connection called for between language and action is therefore not characterised by thematic requirements, requirements of subject matter, but by an attitude towards and a way of dealing with them. Not which topic one treats is of primary importance, but how one deals with it.

44It may well take some time and effort, but a reader can discern, based on a philosopher’s writing, on his style, how close the link between thinking and living actually is, and how often the philosopher tackles the question of authenticity of his thinking and life respectively draws conclusions from this question. In short: the style of a philosophy shows how much of it is “authentic” and how much remains skillfulness, or an “artful trick”.

45To philosophize on the basis of Wittgenstein’s thoughts is, as shown above, certainly not reduced to a relativism which is neither capable of any standpoint nor a basis for consistent steps or actions. Wittgenstein nowhere mentions an equality of world-pictures. The point he does criticize, however, in connection with dealings with proponents of differing world-pictures, is the tendency to judge other world-pictures using the standards (norms) of one’s own world-picture (see in this context also Wittgenstein’s remarks on Frazer).

46Two central themes may be made out: on the one hand, Wittgenstein’s abandoning the search for an essence (of language), abandoning the search for “ultimate” truth, in favour of a conscious reduction to descriptions rather than general explanations; on the other hand, a rigorous claim for authenticity in the life and thought of the individual. These two themes combine to the following view of a possible way to philosophize: the objection consists in — as much as possible — making transparent what is given, looking at things from a different point of view, and continually adding other aspects and perspectives. It is exactly this conscious reduction to close examination and description of the given, like the pointing toward and showing of alternative perspectives, which contains an ethical component: this way of action is a way to distance oneself from jumping to conclusions and theoretical constructions, a way to avoid rash and dogmatic judgements. Combining philosophy and life, together with the demand for authenticity of both, would involve, if taken seriously, that one’s capacity for thought remains open, since no rigid and equally constricting theory functions as one’s objective. Instead, the plurality of thoughts and experiences offered by life would influence not only life itself and one’s view of life, but also thought, which in turn would result in a constant questioning, confirming, negating, adding to, or, modifying one’s way of thinking.

47A constant openness for hitherto unknown matters would be called for — an openness even for the unpleasant and frightening. Even if in the end one sticks to one’s disapproval (which will quite often be the case), at least one knows what one’s talking about (which is, sadly, not too often the case), because one would have made the attempt of an unbiased approach to another view of the world. It is unquestionably true that this procedure will time and again run into obstacles, be it that the other refuses a dialogue, be it because one’s findings are so repulsive that one does not want to, or, cannot continue to deal with the matter, be it that there are differences too big to one’s own views. Still, it seems to me that one ought to agree with Schneider’s statement that an important element of solving practical conflicts consists in our view of a task as being of a kind that is “familiar to us from everyday little steps”, rather than seeing us opposite of “a problem for which we may never find a solution due to philosophical reasons.” (Schneider 1999, 152)

48Moreover, we should be aware right there that the existence of other world-pictures does not only have the function of altering one’s convictions, but equally, that of strengthening them. One the one hand, we have no right to dogmatically claim the truth of our own view of the world, in order to supposedly gain the right of imposing our view on others (“supposedly”, because from the assumption that one holds the only correct view of the world, it does not simply follow that others ought to share this view). The idea of a generally binding set of rules which has to be followed always and everywhere, containing precise orders concerning what ought to be right or wrong, good or evil, is an idea clearly refuted by Wittgenstein.

49On the other hand, one is not reduced to relativism, leaving all views equally valid — it is precisely by pointing toward alternatives, by demonstrating the fact that other perspectives exist, that one gains the opportunity of changing the views of people, their styles of thought.

50However, this requires far more of me, I have no automatic right to lean back (convinced of being in the possession of truth) and certainly no automatic right to suppress persons of a different opinion. Rather, I am expected to continually challenge my thoughts and actions by questioning them. In this context one ought to point out that authenticity is not a status one attains to keep. Truthfulness has to be gained anew each day, it is a neverending process.

51In conclusion, one may emphasize the following: within the framework of sharing collective world-pictures, or, living in them (and the clearly emerging importance of acknowledgement, acceptance, as a basis for our insight, our knowledge), our personal contribution may be seen in two respects: first, in acknowledging plurality in a way that does not exclude other world-pictures and their proponents from the outset, that does not from the very start judge them as good or evil, pleasant or unpleasant, but rather maintains a maximum of openness for other views and pays them respect also insofar, as one pays attention to the various styles of thinking and living, attempts to uncover the foundations of each form of speaking and acting, the context in which they occur. The style of thought and life is not a rhetorical addendum, a nice, but unnecessary accessory, but something which penetrates and shapes a person collectively as well as individually. The second contribution consists in constantly questioning one’s own point of view. On the one hand, this enables me, regarding myself, to realize other perspectives and possibly change my point of view. On the other hand — quite pragmatically — I may thus, regarding other persons, manage to present my point of view with greater conviction — in Buffon’s sense — and maximize my chances of talking them into changing their style of thought.



Buffon, Georges L. L. (1939): Discours à l’Académie Francaise, in: Georges L. L. Buffon: Pages choisies avec une Notice biographique, une Notice historique et littéraire, des Notes explicatives, des Jugements, un Questionnaire et des Sujets de devoirs, par Adrien Cart, publié sous la direction de Félix Guirand, 66 – 74. Paris 1939.

Raatzsch, Richard (1999): Ketzer und Rechtgläubige, Narren und Weise, in: Wilhelm Lütterfelds /Andreas Roser (eds.): Der Konflikt der Lebensformen in Wittgensteins Philosophie der Sprache, 94 – 119. Frankfurt/Main 1999.

Rhees, Rush (ed.) (1981): Ludwig Wittgenstein. Personal Recollections. Oxford 1981.

Schneider, Hans Julius (1999): Offene Grenzen, zerfaserte Ränder: Über Arten von Beziehungen zwischen Sprachspielen, in: Wilhelm Lütterfelds / Andreas Roser (eds.): Der Konflikt der Lebensformen in Wittgensteins Philosophie der Sprache, 138–155. Frankfurt/Main 1999.

Schulte, Joachim (1990): Chor und Gesetz. Wittgenstein im Kontext. Frankfurt/Main 1990.

Ter hark, Michel (1990): Beyond the Inner and the Outer. Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Psychology. Dordrecht 1990.


1 “Can” is used here in the sense that a grammatical sentence would lose its status as a grammatical sentence by being examined: testing it renders it an empirical sentence.

2 Even if “well-founded” and “rational” are often defined in different ways.

3 Schneider refers at this point to Michel Ter Harks distinction between “horizontal” and “vertical” lanugage-games; cf. Ter Hark 1990, quoted after Schneider 1999.

4 It has to be pointed out that Schneider’s assumption of a common linguistic ground-floor is not explicitly stated in Wittgenstein’s writings.

5 “And finally, if one writes as one thinks, if one is convinced of that one wants to convince others of, this good conscience regarding oneself, which constitutes the reputability to others and the truth of style, will have its effect, provided, that this inner conviction does not show itself by too much enthusiasm, and that he at all times has more objectiveness than confidence, more reason than heat.”

6 “These matters are outside of man, the style is man himself. The style can thus neither disengage, move to another place nor alter; provided it is elevated, noble, sublime, the writer will be honoured at all times.”


David Wagner (Traducteur)


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