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Philosophy and Literature 27.1 (2003) 196-210
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On Philosophy as Therapy:
Wittgenstein, Cavell, and Autobiographical Writing
IN HIS LATER PHILOSOPHICAL WRITINGS Wittgenstein was exquisitely sensitive to the misleading implications housed within the formulations of philosophical questions. The question with which he opened the Blue Book, "What is the meaning of a word?," the question "What is thinking?," and the question "What constitutes understanding?," each put into place presumptions concerning how an answer is going to proceed: in the first, that the meaning will be an entity of some kind—likely of an ontological kind different from the acoustical or calligraphic sensory property of the word (to which we will then think the meaning attached); in the second, that thinking will be in essence a determinate mental process or event—likely one of an ontological kind different from that of speaking (to which we will then picture thinking as prior); in the third, an inner process culminating in a state that is metaphysically hidden from all things outer and that is the inner condition that lies unreachable behind what we will then call the behavior that is contingently correlated with it. It is by now no secret that each of these questions has been subjected to thorough scrutiny throughout the writings in The Blue and Brown Books, Philosophical Investigations, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology, Zettel, and even more extensively in the typescripts and manuscripts from which these are taken. 1 But it is still perhaps less widely realized than it might be that the very phrase "Wittgenstein's method" can easily prove as misleading as each of the above questions, and there is an aspect of irony waiting to dawn on those who reflect that the modern philosopher most concerned to maintain a philosophically relevant mindfulness about front-loaded [End Page 196] implications is perhaps too often not afforded precisely the mindfulness about his own later philosophical writings that he was most concerned to teach.
The phrase "Wittgenstein's method" might well lead us to expect, in the first place, a unitary way of contending with philosophical difficulties that is employed across the board; in the second place, it might lead us to expect an acceptance of a set of perennial problems as framed by philosophers through the ages that are treated with that unitary method; and in the third place, it might lead us to expect a set of solutions to those time-honored questions providing answers formulated in a way parallel to, if different from, those worked out by Frege, Russell, Quine, or many others before and since. Indeed, such an expectation has often outlived the recognition that Wittgenstein's own writings are presented in a piecemeal way that seems not to offer any such overarching method or any such problem-accepting concisely formulated answers; some have simply assumed that, while Wittgenstein himself did not or could not provide such results, the raw material is there, and the task of interpretation, in his case, just comes to the task of argument-and-position formulation. To load a spatial metaphor into epistemology, nothing could be further from the truth. What Wittgenstein's later writings offer us is—to put the matter in a different way misleadingly briefly—a way of seeing philosophical problems that constitutes a radical departure from the approaches of Frege, Russell, Quine, and so many others. And in enacting this departure throughout his writings from the Blue Book and the Cambridge lectures of those years through to his final remarks in On Certainty, he himself, wary of too simply or too conventionally characterizing his own ways of working, appeals to the notion of therapy. This is a fitting concept for a moment in philosophy's history of radical departure and an ensuing process of radical change.
It is true that in the Tractatus Wittgenstein wrote "Most of the propositions and questions of philosophers arise from our failure to understand the logic of our language" (4.003), and it would not be wrong to call...