Horwich vs. Lynch on Wittgenstein’s therapeutic conception of philosophy

by Dave Maier

Paul Horwich is a philosopher best known for his “minimalist” (or “deflationist”) theory of truth: that there is nothing more to the idea than that saying that something is true (“'Grass is green' is true”) is the same thing as saying it oneself (“Grass is green”). This view has met with little success, and now Horwich is dressing it in Wittgensteinian garb for resale. As marketing strategy goes, this isn't terrible – Wittgenstein's views are notoriously obscure, and his “quietism” has the same generally meta-skeptical tone as “minimalism” – but I'm not buying it, in neither the old guise nor the new.

Michael Lynch isn't buying it either. He too has a theory of truth (let's not get into it right now), and doesn't appreciate it being dismissed, not for its content, or his arguments for it, but merely for its being a “constructive” theory of truth in the first place. But it's hard to know whom to root for here, as Lynch's anti-Wittgensteinian remarks simply reprise the same trite, uncomprehending dismissals that philosopher has endured for nearly a century now. I won't have enough space here to say what Wittgenstein really meant, nor why he was right to say it; but it's important not to let these things go unchallenged.

Horwich bookHorwich begins by painting himself as the underdog fighting the good fight: “Apart from a small and ignored clique of hard-core supporters the usual view these days is that his writing is self-indulgently obscure and that behind the catchy slogans there is little of intellectual value.”

This is too stark a picture, not to mention a bit self-serving. It's not that there isn't such a clique, or such harsh rejection; but I'd identify at least two further gradations between idolatry and contemptuous dismissal. First, many mainstream philosophers recognize Wittgenstein's contributions, even without accepting (or understanding) his conclusions. More to the point, you don't have to be a “hard-core supporter” to share Wittgenstein's general attitude toward the tendencies in philosophy he objects to. I for one would be perfectly happy to leave Wittgenstein out of it entirely if I could get what I wanted some other way. But there are some things we need that only he gives us.

After some throat-clearing, Horwich boils his Wittgenstein down into four main claims (for elaboration see his recent book on the subject).

1. Philosophy is “scientistic” in aiming at “simple, general principles”.

Such principles, I take it, are fine for science, where no one is complaining about the abstract generality of, say, Newton's laws. But philosophy is not science. I'd agree with this part, except to point out that philosophy was aiming at such principles long before science came along. In fact science as we know it developed from what we used to call “natural philosophy”. More important than labels, though, is the fact that there's nothing wrong with either simplicity or generalization if they're properly understood.

Let me condense the next two points into one.

2/3. The nature of philosophy as conceptual (i.e. non-empirical) investigation, taken together with the empirical complexities of how we actually use the concepts in question, renders those general principles impossible to establish; and this is what explains philosophy's historical inability, which Horwich finds “embarrassing,” to arrive at consensus.


4. Philosophy must be therapeutic instead of constructive, “confined to exposing the irrational assumptions” philosophers make in thinking that their inquiries into non-empirical generalizations could possibly succeed. When we do this, we see that philosophical questions are mere “pseudo-problems”. If we simply reformulate our problem, all we get is another invitation to do the same thing again: to attempt to establish as true a philosophical doctrine by the traditional means of rigorous argument from unimpeachable premises. The muddle concerns not the content of this or that philosophical theory, but the very idea of philosophical “research”, which we must abandon in favor of showing how philosophers go wrong. We thus confine ourselves to description of our everyday linguistic practices (that is, using the concepts of mind, truth, belief, etc.), rather than abstract theorizing about them.

I think this is too strong, but unlike Lynch I am not quite so willing to accept it as a reading of Wittgenstein; although I do concede both a) that he says quite a few things that sound very much like this, and b) that even when you take him to be saying what I think he's saying (and agree with), that you could say, well, yes, that's what I meant by “therapeutic” (and “constructive,” which other philosophers, like Rorty and McDowell, have more successfully used as a pejorative). Even if so, though, it's very easy – as it seems to me both Horwich and Lynch do – to take this doctrine to require, or rule out, rather more than it should.

Why is this? First, I note that for all its railing against general principles, it's pretty general itself. Similarly, for a form of skepticism, urging us to avoid philosophical doctrines, it sounds very much like a doctrine itself. Indeed, Horwich leads off by describing Wittgenstein's achievement as having “discerned the true nature of Western philosophy” and, as we've seen, distills his “notorious doctrine” into four “claims,” for which he then gives a recognizably philosophical argument.

Now I'm the last person to point at this and say: hah, you have refuted yourself (the traditional anti-skeptical response); but it does bring out at the very least the double-sided nature of the facts about language of which Wittgenstein makes so much. He aims, he says, to combat a certain “picture” – one which our language repeats to us constantly, and thus requires extreme measures to avoid. But by that same token (that is, that language use is inherently generalizing, even when describing individual things), rejecting this picture can't require us to reject generality (or objective truth, but that's another conversation) completely, or we're no longer allowed even to talk to each other. (Of course we can make art or something instead of doing philosophy, but that was always true.)

So while it's not strictly self-refuting, this sort of skepticism is just as dogmatic as dogmatism itself. The methodological point should instead be that we must be light on our feet, ready to redeploy our conceptual resources as circumstances warrant (or as Wittgenstein puts it, “rotate our investigation about the axis of our real need”). I think the image of “therapy” is a good one, given that what Wittgenstein wants in many cases is for us to refrain from doing what we unthinkingly, or compulsively, believe we must do. The problem is not that we do it at all – after all, sometimes even the compulsive hand-washer should indeed wash his hands (before dinner, after working in the garden) – but that we are convinced beforehand that we must.

If we oppose the idea of “therapeutic” philosophy to the “constructive” kind in the wrong way, we misuse the image. It's not one activity or the other. Consider again: we do need “therapy” when we have the relevant neurosis; but what then? We have lives to lead as well; we can't spend all day in the therapist's office – as a good therapist knows, whose aim is to help us with our lives, not to “cure” us from leading them.

LwsidelYet, again, I do agree with Horwich that the “therapeutic” image is key. It's just that I take Wittgenstein's conception of the role of therapy to mean resisting skepticism as well as appealing to it to resist dogmatism. Skeptics can overreach just as much as dogmatists do: for Horwich, every theory necessarily fails. Yet even a Wittgensteinian must agree that philosophical progress is possible. Without Kant (or Russell, for that matter), no Wittgenstein; and without Leibniz and Descartes, no Kant; etc, back to Plato and Aristotle. That's just what it is to work in a tradition, and as iconoclastic as Wittgenstein is, he's not the nihilist a lot of people think he is.

After all, we still have conceptual work to do. What is “theory-construction” such that we “must” avoid it on pain of conceptual confusion? And why am I barred from construing this confusion instead as error, to be combated with truth? We often, and perfectly naturally, describe certain things (e.g. sentences or statements) as true. If I understand what it is to do this, can't I be said to understand “what truth is”? It seems dogmatic to deny the possiblity in advance.

Horwich continues with more about truth in particular, which discussion I think suffers from its necessary brevity (I trust his book has more on the matter), but let me move on to Lynch's even briefer response.

Lynch makes two points.

The first is that Horwich is too quick to characterize philosophy in general as confused overgeneralizing due to science envy. I've already agreed with this, and that Lynch defends it with implicit if ham-handed reference to his own theory of truth I will let slide for now.

Lynch's second counter is that philosophy does not, as Wittgenstein said it did, “leave everything as it is.” Philosophy isn't just descriptive, it's normative: “Locke’s view that there are human rights, for example, didn’t leave the world as it was, nor was it intended to.”

While true, this tells us nothing. Naturally philosophers want to change the world in some way, or they wouldn't even bother coming in to work in the morning (figuratively speaking). Mistaken philosophical theories (Lynch's example is that “the real essence of truth is Authority”) can have very unpleasant real-world effects. To fight bad philosophy, we need good philosophy; but it doesn't follow that it is by constructing better metaphysical theories that good philosophy displaces bad. Locke's theory of human rights is causally responsible for modern democracy; but do you really want human rights to depend on Locke's arguments for the existence of such things? If it is refuted by another theory on firmer theoretical ground, will you give up your rights then, or shrug and demand an even better theory of what we already take ourselves to have? Besides, Wittgenstein's not talking about Locke anyway; he's talking about Russell (and his earlier self).

In describing philosophy as descriptive, Wittgenstein is making a very specific point. That point is difficult to grasp, and neither proponents nor critics do well to reduce it to a slogan, let alone one refuted simply by pointing to Locke – which refutation fails in any case, as one can perfectly well engage for normative reasons in what may still be purely descriptive behavior. I don't “describe my language game” simply because that's all I can legitimately do; I am instead driven to do this because it is only by so doing that I can hope to get you to see something to which you have effectively blinded yourself. Once you see it, we can decide together how to continue.

CavellBesides its limiting philosophy to “description,” traditional dismissals of Wittgenstein's view also take it to limit us to endorsing only what people “ordinarily” say, and Lynch does not disappoint: “philosophy can and should aspire to be more than just a description of the ordinary. That is because sometimes the ordinary is mistaken.”

Another glib truism; but the sense in which it helps to be reminded that “the ordinary” can be mistaken is not at all the sense in which Wittgenstein (or even actual “ordinary language philosophers” for that matter) uses that concept. As penance I sentence Lynch to read Stanley Cavell's The Claim of Reason twice through without stopping. Honestly, if Lynch really thinks that Wittgenstein thought that we could dispel metaphysical confusion by simply putting our heads down and saying only what the man in the street says – things which themselves can very well exhibit in raw form the same confusions suffered by professional philosophers – then he needs to read Philosophical Investigations a couple more times as well (especially the sections leading up to §133).

Lynch's conclusion:

“In order to free us from [the insidious consequences of mistaken philosophical theories], the philosopher must not only show the error in such definitions. She must also take conceptual leaps. She must aim at revision as much as description, and sketch new metaphysical theories, replacing old explanations with new. She must risk the fly bottle.”

Ironically, this supposedly anti-Wittgensteinian response (Lynch has agreed that Horwich gets Wittgenstein right, possibly in order more effectively to dismiss them both at once) strikes me as something a Wittgensteinian could agree with if it were properly spelled out: for example, that even when dogmatism is recognized as a danger, skepticism is insufficient as a characterization of philosophy's aims. Horwich does not express his supposedly Wittgensteinian quietism in terms of skeptical philosophy (as does e.g. Robert Fogelin), but the ancient skeptics also saw a proper role for philosophy – to clean up its own messes. (Their image was of a purgative, which expels itself along with the bad humours, leaving nothing behind but a healthy patient.)

Unfortunately even that is not so simple. The conceptual muddles Wittgenstein diagnoses are not to be cut Gordian-knot style, but carefully disentangled. Wittgenstein recognizes that this is hard, painstaking work that most philosophers will shirk, preferring instead their own stipulative definitions, the kind clean enough to allow Universal Truths to be derived a priori. He urged “going the bloody hard way in philosophy”, quite the opposite of throwing one's hands up and quitting – as well as of complacently accepting the traditional self-image of philosophy as peering beyond the veil.

This is to be done with one eye on the “ordinary” use of such concepts, true, but even when Wittgenstein describes his philosophy as the “assembling of reminders” (that is, of what we already know as speakers of our language, before we do philosophy), it is “for a particular purpose” that he does so, not because it is the only thing philosophers may legitimately do – still less because he has, of all things, “discerned the true nature of Western philosophy.”

So I'd agree that in a sense we must indeed “risk the fly-bottle”. However, I very much doubt that Lynch sees the same risks as Wittgensteinians do. He seems to think of them as the same risks as we always have when theorizing – that we will get things wrong, and need to be corrected. But Wittgenstein's point is that in thinking of them that way while doing philosophy, we have already succumbed to them.

The problems of philosophy aren't “mere pseudo-problems.” Our perplexity is real. Something which puzzles us becomes a “pseudo-problem” only when its form gets in the way of its solution. Wittgenstein diagnosed, and did more than any other philosopher to untie, the knots we tie ourselves into when we hold onto the idea of a constructive “solution” to our problem even when that's the aspect of its form which is causing the puzzlement in the first place. What follows from this diagnosis is neither nihilistic anti-philosophy nor simply a need for newer, better theories. What it does require is a lot of careful work on ourselves.