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The philosopher-therapist is in and they will see you now

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his great work "Philosophical Investigations," describes himself as doing therapeutic work and views philosophy itself as a form of therapy. 

I know — it sounds whack. Can you imagine stepping into a therapy room for a first meeting and finding a philosopher instead:

“I’ve been feeling sad for a while now, and I had a really bad argument with my friend yesterday.” 

“Well, how do you know your friend exists as another person independent of your mind? Exactly. You don’t. And for that matter, how do you know you’re feeling sad? What exactly, conscious or unconscious, causes sadness?”

Thankfully, what Wittgenstein means by the statement “philosophy is therapy” is not this kind of interaction. Instead, Wittgenstein’s point is that philosophy often tries to abstract and generalize ideas, when instead philosophers should point out the logical fallacies and pitfalls that we make when constructing universal philosophical theories. Philosophers, Wittgenstein criticizes, like a true gadfly of the 2,600-year-long behemoth of Western philosophy, are using language wrong.

Philosophers have traditionally thought of words — “love,” “truth,” “sandwiches” — as having one abstract, ultimate meaning. But Wittgenstein argues that such a universal definition for a word doesn’t make sense in the majority of cases where we’re concerned about meaning. A word’s meaning isn’t understood through an abstract definition. Instead, we understand a word’s meaning by using it — in conversations, emails, and other communication. 

Words are tools. Just like a tool is defined by what it is used for, words are defined by their observed effect on other people and resulting changes from these people in the environment. That is, words don’t have to mean anything in and of themselves: They don’t have to conjure up a mental picture or reduce to some essential definition. Instead, we use words much like how we use game pieces, in a sort of language game we learn by observation.

Why is this distinction of language such a big deal to Wittgenstein? 

Wittgenstein’s argument is that traditional philosophy is, like the sciences, interested in finding universal, conceptual truths. However, philosophy, unlike the sciences, doesn’t concern itself much with experiments: experiments aren’t well-suited for answering conceptual questions. 

Conceptual truths are rarely as simple as numerical relationships, nor do they fit into universal theories the way that scientific truths about the physical world do. Philosophy, unlike science, is not empirical, because it deals with conceptual matters. Our concepts — about justice or beauty, for example — developed in order to help us interact with our particular environment and milieu. They are not easily collapsible into one meaning. Instead, their meanings vary from person to person and situation to situation. The danger in philosophy, according to Wittgenstein, is to assume that each word has one and only one meaning. Because of this tendency, philosophy is prone to overgeneralizing, overextending analogies, and dismissing uncommon but significant exceptions to the rule. The way we define and understand language is important because it leads us to think we can generalize philosophical conclusions, like in science, when actually we can’t.

The right philosophical approach, according to Wittgenstein, is not to construct theories but rather to simply describe what is going on. Instead of assuming a hidden, universal and thus erroneous truth about a concept, philosophers should limit themselves to describing what is known without extrapolation and identifying mistaken assumptions in existing theories.

And upon first reading about Wittgenstein’s dismissive view of philosophy, I found myself agreeing. I’ve often thought that philosophy has a lot in common with science fiction. Both ask “what if?” and then elaborate on the consequences of their first assumptions. But unlike science fiction, philosophy is meant to describe the world as it is. I dislike reading philosophy where the basic premises seem so unscientific that I struggle to take the argument seriously.

But I don’t mean to imply that Wittgenstein’s philosophy is faultless. In fact, I think he’s frustrating in his own way too: his view of philosophy includes no explanation, no right answer — only description. Just as a therapist doesn’t usually ask what exactly, conscious or unconscious, caused a patient to feel sad or delve into hypotheticals irrelevant to the current situation, Wittgenstein doesn’t concern himself with asking why or what if. It seems as if he can’t be bothered to look for answers to philosophical questions, as imperfect as these answers may be.

This is frustrating, I’ll bet, to anyone who is even a little curious. In general, I like knowing the right answer. I like knowing the right way to cheer up someone who’s feeling down, knowing the right way to solve a homework problem and knowing the right way to live my life. 

But, despite what philosophical faults Wittgenstein’s theory raises, I’m grudgingly realizing that his emphasis on individual experiences instead of abstract, universal truths does have some merit in my own life. In fact, so much of human relationships depend on experience: concepts like happiness, sadness, love and grief gain a new dimension of meaning when you experience them for the first time. This is where science falls flat, and where art — in its experiential peculiarity — shines.

For example, I have found what I consider the perfect way to cheer someone up not through analysis of human psychology, but by living abroad for a semester, talking to people face-to-face after COVID-19, and waiting for grief for a family member to lessen. It’s not that I’ve gained much strategic knowledge about how to talk people through their woes, though that certainly is needed. Instead, I feel more comfortable asking questions and being myself. What is this, if not the result of lived experience?

The meaning of life, too, seems to depend on lived experience. The meaning of life, for me, is inseparable from the idea of a legacy, and my idea of legacy, for better or worse, is likewise inseparable from the Broadway musical Hamilton. “What is a legacy?” asks the titular Alexander Hamilton. “It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”

But maybe a legacy doesn’t have to be a grand new creation. Perhaps a legacy is watering seeds into trees over the course of a life, or introducing another to the joys of gardening. Perhaps a legacy is not one impressive accomplishment, but the ordinary things that are easy to overlook—like humor, walking someone who’s lost to their destination, or picking up litter where no one else does.

Maybe once I’m out of school, past the stress of graduate school applications and job interviews, I’ll stop worrying entirely about the perfect responses to test questions and what I think other people think my goal in life should be. I’d like to read more poetry, make some sort of positive contribution to my community and succeed at least once in composing a song that actually sounds good. Perhaps I’ll even get around to reading Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations.”

In the meantime, I’ll water my succulents. Does that count as therapy? I’d say yes, but that’s just my definition.

Jess Jiang is a Trinity senior. Their column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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