ludwig wittgenstein - philosophy as clarity (2008)

Wittgenstein: “For the clarity we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophy problems should completely disappear.”

Philosophical Investigations 1, 133

When we look at defining philosophy, the first question presented appears to be "why does it need defining in the first place?" The common held view of philosophy that it is a body of information: a doctrine of thoughts held over centuries. It may be best to start off with how the dictionary would define philosophy:

“The rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.”

“, [1]”

This seems to give a sense of philosophy as an act of acquiring knowledge. To further our scope, and to avoid running straight into the problem “what is philosophy?” We could ask: does philosophy have to be defined at all?

In language, we give names for things; we describe their meaning and use. The common view is that, things have to be given a name and definition, so we know what it is.

Over centuries, the field of philosophy has been beset by this line of thinking: a struggle with defining philosophy and pinpointing what it is. An apparent breakthrough was seen during the 20th Century, with a radically new level of thinking introduced. It was the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who proposed a different view in how we see philosophy: philosophy as clarification rather than doctrine. Within this clarification, Wittgenstein emphasised the importance of looking at our use of language:

“We eliminate misunderstandings by making our expressions more exact”

“Wittgenstein, [2], Part I, No.91, Paragraph 2”

By firstly being conscious of the words we use, what order they are in and how we say it, we can minimise any emerging philosophical misunderstanding, and hence, minimise the problems in philosophy.

“The sense of a sentence—one would like to say—may, of course, leave this or that open, but the sentence must nevertheless have a definite sense. An indefinite sense—that would really not be a sense at all.—This is like: An indefinite boundary is not really a boundary at all.”

“Wittgenstein, [2], Part I, No.99”

Wittgenstein focuses on the fundamental structure and boundaries of what is being said, rather than firstly looking at the contents of what is being said. For example, if I get frustrated, phobic and anxious about snakes in the sentence “there are no snakes”, then I have not looked before I leaped: I was too concerned about the content that I did not read and understand the sentence fully: there are no snakes.

Wittgenstein affirms that a sentence must be saying something. There is no need to say something that does not add anything. His concern is to “clean up” sentences before developing it into anything else. Language has to be used properly and decently. Problems in philosophy arise when its not being used in this manner.

When we examine the logic behind our definitions, we come to know them as meaning certain things. If for example, I say “the man is trapped”, we come to mean that as the man as having no where to go. Wittgenstein points out that the problems in sentences come about when people phrase things like “the man is trapped, but still has an opening path”. This defeats the definition of something being trapped, so in fact, the sentence is not logically saying anything at all: because the man is not trapped. How perfect and concise does one need to go about wording something effectively? What has to be left out and what has to remain left in?

“The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement.”

“Wittgenstein, [2], Part I, No.107”

As Wittgenstein says, it can depend on our requirement of it. But what is our requirement of it? Does it change from person to person, from author to reader? In itself, the task of clarifying language comes with its own problems, and thus starts us off with where we came from: problems in philosophy.

“We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!”

“Wittgenstein, [2], Part I, No.107”

Wittgenstein sees philosophical problems, with their complexities and bad structure, as the perfect testing ground for clarifying and re-evaluating philosophical points, in order to vanquish the initial problem. It can release us from the chains of philosophy. However, by attempting to clarify philosophy, that itself comes with its problems. How can we clarify a problem? Is there a right way of clarification? Even if you can clarify a muddy problem, is there a possibility of it still remaining a problem? (but a clean problem at that!) We start off back to where we started, at a philosophical problem.

When we see Wittgenstein’s work, he seems fairly interested in the language of philosophy, the structure used by philosophers within their arguments. But to turn the attention to what philosophy is, can only be answered as knowledge.

“Philosophy, like all other studies, aims primarily at knowledge”

“Russell, [3], Chapter.18: The Value of Philosophy, p.90.”

So is ultimately philosophy just a body of information? There seems to be a difference between what the task of philosophers is, and what other philosophers do. There has never been any set task for a philosopher. There are no guidelines for philosophy. A philosopher can write his/her thoughts on the world. For other philosophers, they could look at past philosophies and ideas, and with his modern observation, clean up, or add, or subtract a new line of thinking, to come to some kind of sound truth. So is this all opinion over time? How is one philosopher more recognised for saying one thing, than another for saying another? Can we innately recognise a truth, and thus support and spread the right idea? We seem to get an uncomfortable confusion over what philosophy is, and what philosophers should do.

“It cannot be maintained that philosophy has had any very great measure of success in its attempts to provide definite answers to its questions.”

“Russell, [3], Chapter.18: The Value of Philosophy, p.90.”

It may be slightly disappointing for those who expect factual truths like the sciences and histories, but, as Russell goes on to say:

“the value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty.”

“Russell, [3], Chapter.18: The Value of Philosophy, p.91.”

This could be the distinctive value. The uncertainty itself, as proposed by Russell, could by the very underlying definition of what philosophy is. It could be this uncertainty to approaching so called answers that makes philosophy.

Going back to Wittgenstein’s thinking as philosophy as clarity, he says:

“Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it”

“Wittgenstein, [2], Part I, No.124”

So by turning our heads to the actual lexis of language, we can expose and therefore eliminate any misunderstandings that we may have. This is the process of clarification, but a problem with this arises when we look at the initial essay topic quotation:

“For the clarity owe are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophy problems should completely disappear.”

“Essay Question 6: Philosophical Investigations 1, 133”

If indeed we have taken note of Wittgenstein’s awareness and the complications of philosophy, and apply his knowledge, then would, like he said, philosophical problems vanish? If not, why not?

Philosophical problems are still here today. There is still great debate over answers. What does this mean, is Wittgenstein incorrect? Regardless of how clear things are, will there still be a problem?

It seems philosophy comes to a raw problem: do people want philosophy to be something, or does philosophy want to be something? When looking at defining what philosophy is, it seems the problem lies in one of them questions. Regardless, philosophy does say something. The interesting point is that, from everything there is to be said about philosophy, all the information we have about philosophy, there is still no definite definition as to what it is.

We can acknowledge Wittgenstein’s point: what I say in philosophy must have a definite sense, even if I say definitely that there is no indefinite answer. Philosophy as a subject without definition causes confusion and problems. We live in a world where we want things to mean things.

There seems to be a difference in the levels of indefiniteness. Some young people today do not know what philosophy is. They are not sure and guess using their best efforts. Some philosophers, spending years and even lifetimes into the study of philosophy, still come to a conclusion of confusion: they don’t know what philosophy is. There is a sense that there is a strong difference between these two people. The dedicated philosopher must have looked at what he knows, what people have said about the definition of philosophy, and abandoned the conceptions to come to a conclusion of not knowing. Here’s the key difference: in order to abandon it, you had to have the conception in the first place. And so therefore, the act of knowing, and then abandoning that knowledge could be the philosophy. As the artist Allan Kaprow put it when defining art:

“This allowed me to retain my membership in the art community while leaving it. Leaving art is the art. But you must have it to leave it...Art could (but might not) be simply doing art, whatever that is, as long as it can’t be defined.”

“Kaprow, [4], Preface to the expanded edition: On the way to un-art”, p. xxix”  

In a sense then, philosophy seems internalised and personal. By looking at somebody in a police uniform I can say they are a police officer, but it seems there is nothing visible that says "you are a philosopher." Instead of philosophy existing in books, philosophy may be in the person itself. And this may be truly what philosophy is. A person who carries a book of Socrates around is not a philosopher: his book is the philosopher. But to somebody who has nothing but knows philosophy: that is the philosopher. In order to have what he has, he had to leave what he had (books).

To conclude on Wittgenstein’s thinking, it seems the best way to go about finding out what philosophy is, is by “doing” philosophy. That is to say, its analysing, theorising, and forming of arguments, From what we have learned from Wittgenstein, we should proceed to “do” philosophy with discipline: discipline to keep the words sharp and succinct in order to tackle philosophical problems, and lead philosophy onwards in a more clearer path.


[1]                     Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Random House, 2006.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein                    Philosophical Investigations, Basil Blackwell, 1953

[3] Bertrand Russell                            The Problems of Philosophy, Lecture Notes

[4] Allan Kaprow                                Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, Expanded Edition, University of California Press, 2003.