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Journal of the History of Philosophy 42.3 (2004) 297-326

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Wittgenstein, German Organicism, Chaos, and the Center of Life

No supposition seems to me more natural than that there is no process in the brain correlated with associating or with thinking; so that it would be impossible to read off thought processes from brain processes. I mean this: if I talk or write, there is, I assume, a system of impulses going out from my brain and correlated with my spoken or written thoughts. But why should the system continue further in the direction of the center. Why should this order not proceed, so to speak, out of chaos? The case would be like the following-certain kinds of plants multiply by seed, so that a seed always produces a plant of the same kind as that from which it was produced—but nothing in the seed corresponds to the plant which comes out of it—this can only be done from the history of the seed. So an organism might come into being out of something quite amorphous, as it were, causelessly; and there is no reason why this should not really hold for our thoughts, and hence for our talking and writing.
L. Wittgenstein, Zettel §608

Paragraph 608 of Zettel is one of the most remarkable passages in Wittgenstein, for it presents a more metaphysical view than one would associate with his later philosophy.1 [End Page 297] Despite Wittgenstein's well known opposition to metaphysics,2 Z §608 clearly endorses a doctrine of emergence, the view, that the order in our language and thought "arises" out of "chaos" or "nothing." The general idea in emergentism is that certain kinds of wholes, notably, organisms, are "greater than the sum of their parts."3 Although emergentism has suffered from neglect and abuse for a half century, it has recently become a live issue.4

Klee, Kim, and McLaughlin emphasize the kind of emergence which involves "downward causation," the view that the emergent whole causally influences the behavior of its own parts.5 Such emergentism asserts that there is an "explanatory gap" between an organism's characteristics and its mechanical structure,6 where this gap is a matter of ontology rather than mere ignorance of the causes. The present paper argues that Wittgenstein's doctrine of emergence is central to his later philosophies of language and mind. The common view that Wittgenstein's later philosophy is primarily negative has proved a liability for Wittgenstein.7 Cognitive scientists respond that even if there are serious problems with their views, [End Page 298] "Remotely plausible theories are better than no theories at all."8 But Wittgenstein's remark at PI §109 that philosophy should not offer theories has been misunderstood. For Wittgenstein, the paradigm of a theory is mechanics (LAC28-29), and it is not the job of philosophy to explain the phenomena by adverting to hidden mechanisms (PI §435). But philosophy may offer a different kind of positive account, the kind of descriptive account appropriate to emergent organic phenomena.9 According to Z §608, this is a description of the phenomena as it emerges in a history. In order to appreciate Wittgenstein's emergentism, it is necessary to have the correct interpretation of the words "center" and "chaos" in Z §608. Many commentators take it as obvious that by "the center," Wittgenstein means the neural center.10 For in modern neuroscience, it is natural to view the brain as the control center of the organism. Wooldridge, Armstrong, Popper, Rose, Fodor, Dennett, Gillett, Greenfield, and Clark, all use "center" in this way.11

Given the modern view, called "central state materialism" as background,12 Z §608 seems to claim, first, that the order of our thought and language cannot be [End Page 299] traced to the neural center, and, second, that intelligence must arise out of neural "chaos." Thus, McGinn thinks Wittgenstein is suggesting that the brain might turn out to be oatmeal.13 But careful attention to...


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