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Ideas in transition

Researchers study manuscripts from the intermediate phase between Wittgenstein’s two most famous works

LOREDANOThere is usually no doubt about the fact that Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) was an author whose body of work has two very distinct phases.  The “first Wittgenstein” is found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, published in 1921, and the “second” is represented by the Investigações filosóficas (Philosophical Investigations) published posthumously in 1953.  Despite the three decades that separate the two time periods, “the path from the Tractatus to Philosophical Investigations, until the late 1990s, was treated much like the conversion of St. Paul to Christianity,” says João Vergílio Gallerani Cuter, a professor in the Department of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP).  It was as if the philosopher had suddenly, and without clear reason, begun to espouse a philosophy completely different from before.  “This is untenable from a biographical standpoint and unsatisfactory from a conceptual standpoint,” says Cuter.

The approach began to change in the late 1990s when Wittgenstein’s manuscripts from the period between his two most famous works began to be published.  This is the material that constitutes the primary sources utilized in the thematic project, “The Middle Wittgenstein,” which Cuter has coordinated at the FFLCH-USP since June 2012, and which is scheduled to be completed by May 31, 2015.  One interesting aspect of the project is that it arises from discussions started at the very time the manuscripts were first published, in dialogue with studies carried out concurrently in other parts of Brazil and abroad.

“We already have a good and varied number of studies regarding Wittgenstein’s middle period spread over several regions in Brazil,” says Bento Prado Neto, a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Methodology of Sciences at the Center for Education and Human Sciences at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar), who assumed leadership of the project in its final phase, and who has been taking part in discussions with Cuter since the very beginning.  The first step was the colloquium “The Middle Wittgenstein,” which provided an opportunity for interactions with foreign researchers and researchers from other Brazilian states such as André Porto from the Federal University of Goiás and Luiz Carlos Pereira from the State University of Rio de Janeiro and the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), who co-organized the most recent editions of the colloquium.  “It was a regularly scheduled colloquium and its conversion into the thematic project was the natural result of a long-established project, now with the advantage of an institutionalized structure,” says Prado Neto.

Looking in retrospect at the thematic project, the two researchers agree that its most important benefit was the possibility that aspects of the work of the “two” Wittgensteins could be explained on the basis of a systematic study of the middle texts.  According to Prado Neto, there had traditionally been a “reasonable consensus regarding the meaning of the aphorisms of the Tractatus” as there was with regard to its allegiance and significance in the field of logic and the origin of the issues discussed (found in thinkers such as Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell), although there were interpretations about this basic consensus that were diametrically opposed.  The disagreement is even more pronounced in the readings of the Philosophical Investigations.

Prado Neto says that the interpretation of the middle writings allows us to establish a new basis on which to situate discussions about the different interpretative tendencies.  With regard to the work of the researchers meeting at the colloquia and the thematic project born at the FFLCH, “we as a group of individuals from varied backgrounds were able to obtain a minimum level of agreement that allowed an extremely beneficial joint interpretation, regardless of the differences in approach,” says Prado Neto.  “In philosophy, a minimum of consensus never hinders the variety of interpretations; on the contrary, it characterizes the discussion.”

To Cuter, the texts from the middle period make it clear that the written rules about the phenomena in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus need to be studied.  According to him, in the early 1930s, Wittgenstein began to consider a change in the analysis of the phenomena advocated by the work, “but it was in the private realm that the language would find its basis.”  Around 1936, however, this began to collapse and the philosopher “developed a systematic criticism of his own thinking, arguing against the logical possibility of a private language,” understanding “private language” in this context as that whose meaning would be logically inaccessible to any person other than the speaker.

As we can see, even in his middle period, Wittgenstein is far from homogeneous.  The Austrian philosopher who moved to England to study under Bertrand Russell in Cambridge donated a portion of the inheritance of his family, one of the wealthiest in Austria, to his sisters, at more or less the time the Tractatus was published.  He then began to teach children, renouncing philosophical activity.  But in 1929 at age 40, he went back to Cambridge, where he would succeed G. E. Moore as chair of the philosophy department in 1937.  He gave up the chair in 1947, four years before his death.

The project, “the Middle Wittgenstein,” was based on documents from the 1929-1933 period, which included nearly 3,000 handwritten pages in addition to notes of conversations held with the Vienna Circle, notes taken by his students during courses given from 1930 to 1933, notations made by Moore (that will be published in the United States in 2015), two conferences and portions of correspondence by Wittgenstein himself regarding the period.  “Wittgenstein was a philosopher in the traditional sense of the word, and not a university philosopher concerned about solving specific problems in order to publish another article,” Cuter says.  He adds that nevertheless, there is “no pretension to systemize his philosophy, unless one refers to the Tractatus, and even then, only to a limited extent.”

All the material that constitutes the middle period expands along a continuum of radical questioning.  The impact of Wittgenstein’s thought – which led his teacher Russell to rethink his own conclusions in the field of the philosophy of logic – is largely due to what Cuter describes as “a desire to address traditional philosophical problems as a whole.”  As the researcher explains, from the beginning to the end of his philosophical voyage, Wittgenstein always believed that philosophical problems rested on misunderstandings about the “grammar” of the language.  “For the first Wittgenstein, this ‘grammar’ should be pursued through an analysis that would lead us to the display of a set of basic assertions, from which any and all assertions of language could be built through verifunctional means.”  In this way, analysis of the assertions of the language could lead to three outcomes: a function of a common truth about the basic assertions, equipped with bipolarity and thus placed within the descriptive realm; a tautology or contradiction that says nothing; or the statement that the process of analyzing the presumed assertion leads us to a “dead-end,’ which would reveal that the presumed assertion from which we began was actually nonsensical.

“During his mature period, neither this single, predetermined path of analysis nor the notion of a ‘universal’ language expressing a field of meaning exists,” says Cuter.  “The only logical a priori constraint is the necessarily public nature of the criteria we use to determine whether a sentence is correct or incorrect.”  This serves to determine the meaning and value of the truth of a language’s sentences, as well as anything that involves the notion of “rule.”  What is important, from Wittgenstein’s point of view, would be to preserve the distinction between the occasions when a rule would be followed and the occasions when it is only apparently followed.  “Whenever we call something a rule, we allow for the possibility that someone may think that he or she is following it when in reality, he or she is not.  It is precisely this that would be excluded, as a matter of principle, from an allegedly strictly private domain that only I have the logical possibility of accessing.”

“The scope of theTractatus project involves the logical clarification of the language,” Prado Neto says.  “By remaining strictly focused on clarifying the logic – in other words, in explaining the “general form” of the assertion, aside from its ‘content’  – , the first work seems to reduce all of this to a philosophical reflection deserving of this name, and to eliminate themes such as time, space, phenomena, etc.”  Upon his return to Cambridge in 1929, Wittgenstein was to devote himself to the “application of the logic,” or rather, to the logical analysis of the assertions of our language, and from there, the explanation of the language, which continued to be the fundamental work of the philosophy, could no longer remain indifferent to this content.  “This revisiting of classical themes is one of the interesting aspects of the middle period, to the extent that it allows a little less simplistic confrontation of Wittgenstein’s philosophy with tradition.”

Far from exhausting – if such a thing is even possible – the possibilities involved in studying and interpreting the Middle Wittgenstein, the researchers’ project extends to establishing a unit that was already included among its initial objectives, with the participation, in addition to Brazilian researchers, of famous figures such as David Stern of the University of Iowa, and Mathieu Marion of the University of Quebec.  One of the foreign researchers who took part in the colloquia organized by Cuter and Prado Neto from the very beginning, Frenchman Ludovic Soutif, moved to Brazil – he did his postdoc at USP and today is a professor at PUC-Rio.

The international network of studies has led to four international colloquia, one of them at the University of Bordeaux, which received financial support from French agencies, as well as the publication of a special issue of the Canadian journal Philosophiques.  A yet-untitled book written by “eight-hands” – by Cuter, Prado Neto and Marcelo Carvalho of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), along with Mauro Engelmann, of the Federal University of Minas Gerais – with analysis regarding the Philosophische Bemerkungen (philosophical observations) will soon be released by Editora Unifesp.  A second volume that deals solely with chapters about the philosophy of mathematics in the same work is underway.  According to Cuter, it is being written by young researchers who have excellent training in mathematics and could lead to further studies down the road.  “We now have palpable results that were unthinkable when he began our work alone in Brazil, isolated from the rest of the world,” he says.

The Middle Wittgenstein (No. 2012/50005-6); Grant Mechanism Thematic Project; Principal investigator Bento Prado de Almeida Ferraz Neto (UFSCar); Investment R$100,403.46 (FAPESP).