Why Wittgenstein Rejected Theories

Wittgenstein200Oskari Kuusela in The Philosopher's Magazine:

A distinctive feature of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is his rejection of philosophical theses and theories. Instead he comprehends philosophy as an activity of clarification. How he understands the contrast between this activity and philosophical theorising, however, is not immediately obvious and constitutes a disputed topic among his readers. Apparently symptomatic of this unclarity is that many of Wittgenstein’s interpreters in fact attribute various philosophical theories to him either explicitly or implicitly, against their own self-understanding. Either way, this constitutes a problem.

To attribute theories to Wittgenstein is to characterise his work as inconsistent, as containing a contradiction between his methodological statements about philosophy and his actual philosophical practice. Beyond scholarly concerns, to attribute theories to Wittgenstein is to miss out on the possible benefits of rethinking the nature of philosophy with him. More specifically, he claims to have found a strategy for avoiding dogmatism in philosophy, a problem he sees as intimately connected with philosophical theories. The problem of dogmatism thus understood might also be seen as one central reason why philosophy remains enmeshed in dispute, and doubts persist about its value.

Part of the difficulty of understanding what exact purpose Wittgenstein’s rejection of theories and theses serves is that he doesn’t explain as clearly as one could hope for in his published work what he means by philosophical theories or theses. Thus, for example, his rejection of theorising has been taken to mean that one shouldn’t hold any positive views about the objects of philosophical investigation. For many – presumably, including those who attribute theories to him – this would mark the end of philosophy, rather than a new beginning.