|||Wittgenstein, Lugwig. On Certainty. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.|||
We say we know that water boils when it is put over a fire. How do we know? Experience has taught us - I say ‘I know that I had breakfast this morning’; experience hasn’t taught me that. One also says ‘I know that he is in pain’. The language game is different every time, we are in a position to know every time. And that is why the propositions are found in textbooks for everyone.
If someone says he knows something, it must be something that, by general consent, he is in a position to know. aphorism 555.
One can safely say that Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. The idea that the meanings of words are nothing more than the spontaneous results of language games, that are themselves the products of various forms of life or customs, forms the basis of much of postmodern criticism of metaphysics with its consequent emphasis on relativism. Although a full understanding of Wittgenstein’s philosophy requires a much more thorough study than the space of this article allows, it is hoped that this brief study will shed some light on the nature of forms of life and the consequent language games that ensue in humanity’s continuing quest to address them.
Since they are both logically and chronologically prior, we shall first begin by studying precisely what Wittgenstein understands by “forms of life.” Forms of life are any practice or set of practices that have been maintained by humans for any duration of time sufficient to become customs. These can include forms that are extremely simple and concrete (boiling water for example) as well as those which are compounded and abstract (not killing someone without sufficient reason). These facts by themselves may seem sufficiently obvious and unremarkable; however, insofar as they coincide with and necessitate the formation of language games, they reveal the unique nature of Wittgenstein’s analysis.
Language games, for Wittgenstein, are the means by which humanity over time continually augments its understanding of the forms which constitute the world in which it lives and moves. The neutral term “augment” is the best descriptor for the role that language games play in their interaction with forms of life, for their role is not merely one of passive description or definition. Rather, they are tools that serve the purposes of the individual or individuals who wield them. Language under this schema is arbitrary and decentralized, with nothing and no one to anchor language in some sort of objective meaning. Furthermore, since the forms of life have no expression outside of language games, the implications of this realization for philosophy in general are both endless and bottomless.
As we shall see in further reflections, this decentralization of language by reducing it to the arbitrary standard or measure of the individual becomes the jumping off point for much of postmodern philosophy. Whether one reads it in the deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida or in the political philosophy of liberal irony as conceived by Richard Rorty, the emphasis on man as a supreme and supremely relative arbiter of an ultimately de-centered meaning is a central theme of postmodern philosophy. Under such a system, ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics all become subsumed under a voluntarism that is either individual or collective. In its individual context it turns epistemology into deconstructionism and ethics into emotivism or the morality of mere sentiment. In its collective context it turns political philosophy into a valueless liberal irony and metaphysics into a mere analysis of the role power structures play in the manufacture and maintenance of a meaning imposed upon the world externally.
In this way Wittgenstein caused the investigations of philosophy to come to a perverse full circle by turning the classical and medieval order of knowledge on its head. As Aristotle conceived of the process of learning, one begins with what is known by the individual and finds their ultimate reality through the participation in universal forms. Wittgenstein has us begin with general forms and find their ultimate reality through the will of individuals. To believe something to be true implies a preference of the will towards a desired object; this, quite simply, is not a “prejudice” held by postmodern philosophers since the time of Wittgenstein. For this reason Wittgenstein is often considered the father of postmodern philosophy and the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century.
About Thomas Chaney
Thomas Chaney graduated from the College of St. Thomas More in 2007, and is currently pursuing a MA in Philosophy at the University of Dallas. He currently works as a Scholar’s Associate in Philosophy with the Walsingham Society School of Liberal Studies. Follow Thomas on Google+
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