What Does It Look Like?

Wittgenstein’s Philosophy in the Light of His Conception of Language Description: Part I

by Sebastiaan A. Verschuren (Author)
©2017 Monographs 344 Pages


This book is the first part of a comprehensive study of Wittgenstein’s conception of language description. Describing language was no pastime occupation for the philosopher. It was hard work and it meant struggle. It made for a philosophy that required Wittgenstein’s full attention and half his life. His approach had always been working on himself, on how he saw things. The central claim of this book is that nothing will come of our exegetical efforts to see what Wittgenstein's later philosophy amounts to if his work on describing language is not given the place and concern it deserves. The book shows what his philosophy might begin to look like in the light of critical questions around his interest to see the end of the day with descriptions, and these things only.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1. Not a common way of looking
  • 1.1 In the end
  • 1.2 A closer look at the contrast
  • 1.3 Three philosophical playgrounds
  • 1.4 By way of some further orientation
  • 1.5 In the beginning
  • 2. “Die Problematik der Philosophie ist die Problematik des Witzes”
  • 2.1 The most important questions are covered up
  • 2.2 The Witz of the language-game
  • 2.3 Intermezzo: Wittgenstein – the psychologist
  • 2.4 The system
  • 2.5 Two types of prejudices
  • 3. Wittgenstein’s Copernican Revolution, Part I
  • 3.1 By way of a prologue
  • 3.2 Crystalline purity
  • 3.3 About a That and its How
  • 3.4 Another That and How
  • 3.5 PI §108
  • 3.6 PI §§130–131
  • 4. Wittgenstein’s Copernican Revolution, Part II
  • 4.1 Parallel cases
  • 4.2 Whose possibility?
  • 4.3 Light and understanding
  • 4.4 From without
  • 4.5 Analogies
  • 5. What do our neighbours look like?
  • 5.1 Why play the game the way we do?
  • 5.2 Polar opposites and contradiction
  • 5.3 What a strange method!
  • 6. A big gap in Wittgenstein’s thinking
  • 6.1 Surprise and a first grip
  • 6.2 A closer look at the Step
  • 6.3 Rules and Moore-type propositions
  • 6.4 On Certainty §501
  • 6.5 Another exploitation of the Step
  • References

← 8 | 9 →


‘All explanation must disappear, and description alone must take its place.’1 These words from Wittgenstein’s second masterpiece are as legendary as the man himself. Eleven signs, two great symbols, an entire philosophy, much folderol to one school, naught but truth and essence to another. What the one hopes for, the other challenges, a diversion that keeps legends alive and scholars kicking.

I, too, have written a book about Wittgenstein’s philosophy, which I take to be saying that doing away with all explanation is not enough, but that something must take its place, namely description. What Wittgenstein’s remark epitomizes is a true Gedankenbewegung, a philosophical movement of thought that does not begin with descriptions, but comes to an end in them. This movement was surely not the only one that he was anxious to engage in and to think through. Yet, compared to all the others that preoccupied him during his many years of philosophical labour, the one at issue was exceptional as it was at work in all he did to tackle philosophical problems. It dominated the whole of his philosophical thinking, each part and every share, with all bits and pieces perennially contriving a plot that I call the dialectical character of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy: ‘All explanation must disappear, and description alone must take its place.’ This book is about this character with its special focus being the part and role that description plays in his philosophy. It is about the problems and difficulties that Wittgenstein faced while trying to furnish the ‘final notching to his philosophical beans’: descriptions of language.

Indeed, this book is about a topic that runs as a recurrent theme through every concern and issue that Wittgenstein, during the last twenty years or so of his life, was anxious to lay his philosophical hands on. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect about this theme qua subject matter in the immense literature on Wittgenstein is that it has not proved to be particularly ‘in the fashion’, neither among his philosophical friends nor among his foes. In the course of more than six decades of scholarly exegesis commentators have written extensively, at times even feverishly in the wake of the latest upsurge, about such topics as ‘Following a Rule’, ‘Meaning and Use’, ‘Privacy of Language’, ‘The Inner and the Outer’, and ‘Seeing as’, to mention only a few of them. Of course, these are the kinds of things about which Wittgenstein has thought and written himself, both extensively and intensively. But through all these more or less Wittgensteinian issues runs a conspicuous and everlasting concern, at least on Wittgenstein’s own part—namely, ← 9 | 10 → to end up with descriptions, and these things only. It has been no small concern on his part, and yet, it has only been a minor exegetical concern among his advocates and commentators, expert or not in their adoration or abomination, neither in close connection with any of the topics themselves, nor in the form of a comprehensive investigation as this book seeks to take up as the first part of an even more comprehensive enquiry and critical evaluation. To quote Wittgenstein is so much easier than to catch him, and quotes spring readily to mind.

If Bertrand Russell ever intended to keep his aversion to the philosophy of his former pupil under his hat, he must have drastically changed his mind after Wittgenstein’s untimely death.

I have not found in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations anything that seemed to me interesting and I do not understand why a whole school finds important wisdom in its pages. Psychologically this is surprising. The earlier Wittgenstein, whom I knew intimately, was a man addicted to passionately intense thinking, profoundly aware of difficult problems of which I, like him, felt the importance, and possessed (or at least so I thought) of true philosophical genius. The later Wittgenstein, on the contrary, seems to have grown tired of serious thinking and to have invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary. I do not for one moment believe that the doctrine which has these lazy consequences is true. I realize, however, that I have an overpoweringly strong bias against it, for, if it is true, philosophy is, at best, a slight help to lexicographers, and at worst, an idle tea-table amusement.2

Russell must have looked at Wittgenstein’s later philosophy as what merely seeks to describe the use of our words and sentences. And, indeed, being looked at thus, the question arises of what there should be so difficult about anything like that, or exciting. Just look at the practice of our language, Wittgenstein seems to be saying, for then you will find the answer. And so it is: his Philosophical Investigations seems to abound in remarks that at first glance are strongly suggestive of a philosophy having ceased to be a genuinely difficult enterprise. Here are a few: ‘Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything’ (§126); ‘The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders ← 10 | 11 → for a particular purpose’ (§127); ‘What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use’ (§116); ‘The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known’ (§109); ‘Philosophy of logic speaks of sentences and words in exactly the sense in which we speak of them in ordinary life when we say e.g. “Here is a Chinese sentence”, or “No, that only looks like writing; it is actually just an ornament” and so on’3; and, to mention one more remark here, the one that I think Russell must have had in mind particularly while speaking of a ‘suave evasion of paradoxes’ (cf. footnote 2): ‘It is not the business of philosophy to resolve a contradiction by means of a mathematical or logico-mathematical discovery, but to render surveyable the state of mathematics that troubles us’ (§125).4

Of course, advocates of Wittgenstein’s later work may well wish to see in Russell’s overt grudge against being old, antiquated, and no longer ‘in the fashion’ a suave evasion of the paradoxes of life. And yet, advocates, too, have their own suave evasions of asking all kinds of critical questions, and advocates of Wittgenstein not so much about descriptions as about Wittgenstein’s descriptions; and perhaps not so much about these things as about these things in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. To be sure, I am not claiming that the notion of Wittgenstein’s description has not been addressed in the secondary literature. All I am saying, or rather suggesting, is that this literature is conspicuously silent on (especially) the specific problems and difficulties that troubled Wittgenstein throughout his daily efforts to arrive at mere descriptions of language. But, I admit, this is perhaps itself a suave evasion of claiming that the notion of Wittgenstein’s descriptions has not been of primary interest to his commentators.

Books are said to be reliable mirrors of the Zeitgeist, and I truly believe that even the tablespoons in Buckingham Palace envy the mirroring capacities of all those Handbooks and Companions in which Wittgenstein’s own Geist faces its contemporary reception. The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein5, which appeared in 1996, devoted not a single chapter, or even a page, to the question of what describing language amounts to, according to Wittgenstein. In 2001, ← 11 | 12 → Wittgenstein – A Critical Reader (Blackwell publishers)6 saw the light of the day; I quote the back cover: ‘Exploring all of the central themes of Wittgenstein’s oeuvre, this volume includes discussion of core topics such as meaning and use, rule following, the picture theory of language and the nature of philosophy. It also contains topics in which Wittgenstein’s influence is becoming more apparent, such as intentionality and ethics. The book provides a wide-ranging collection of newly commissioned essays on Wittgenstein by internationally established philosophers […]’. I guess that if such a Critical Reader explores ‘all of the central themes of Wittgenstein’s oeuvre’ within the narrow breadth of a single book, it has simply no space left for anything so central a theme like the man’s description.

In 2011, Oxford University Press followed suit with The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein7, laying claim to being ‘the most comprehensive volume ever published on Wittgenstein: thirty-five leading scholars explore the whole range of his thought, offering critical engagement and original interpretation, and tracing his philosophical development. […]. This handbook is the place to look for a full understanding of Wittgenstein’s special importance to modern philosophy.’—Certainly, if you consult this almanackic sort of place, in quest of a critical engagement or interpretation, original or not, of what it was like for Wittgenstein to do away with all explanation and to put description alone in its place, of how his unceasing struggles to do so has added more colour and character to his later philosophy than anything else; if you are curious to learn of the pivotally important role that, for instance, the fictitious language-games have been playing in his efforts to arrive at descriptions at last, and descriptions alone, then, the best you will find is an allusion or two at one place and some dim suggestions at another. It appears that Wittgensteinians, after more than sixty years of scholarly work, still have to catch up with Wittgenstein’s ever-lasting concerns and troubles. But Blackwell—indeed, Blackwell again—has been magnanimously announcing a ‘keynote addition’. But to what? To ‘the Blackwell series on the world’s great philosophers’!8—Will it be ← 12 | 13 → more of mom’s old fashioned apple pie? More of the ‘absolutely necessary reading’? More of ‘the definite resource for the study of this great philosopher’, his soul and his bones? More explorations of his thought, this time far beyond its whole range? More penetrating insights into Wittgenstein’s life from professors of philosophy and ‘the most internationally eminent thinkers and intellectuals’ from the sage world of commissioned academicians? Or will it be another fait accompli blessed by the imprimatur of more than a meagre thirty-five executants and interpreters?

Perhaps I do well to add one more mirror to the above list: Saul Kripke’s influential book Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language.9 This book deals with no small topic, and yet, it hardly ever mentions the word ‘description’, never mind Wittgenstein’s deep need for arriving at mere descriptions of language. Kripke’s book has been a target of much criticism, mesmerizing, for various reasons, an entire generation of commentators for some length of time. But in the whole joined hue and cry there is little if any roaring about what counts for Wittgenstein in the end: description alone. To the best of my knowledge the prominent lack of this concern in Kripke’s book has never been addressed and turned into a point of criticism of his ‘classic’ interpretation.

My concern in this book is not with Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein, nor with classical topics such as ‘Following a Rule’ and ‘Meaning and Use’, but rather with something far more general or characteristic of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, with what I have called the dialectical character of his approach and way of thinking. What I speak of here is something that is missed once the point of Wittgenstein’s descriptions is lost. And lost, I dare to say, it is more often than not in the secondary literature on the man and his philosophy. But to lose it is to miss no small point. This brings me to what Michael Dummett writes in his The Logical Basis of Metaphysics:

We all stand, or should stand, in the shadow of Wittgenstein, in the same way that much earlier generations once stood in the shadow of Kant; and one of my complaints about many contemporary American philosophers is that they appear never to read Wittgenstein. Some things in his philosophy, however, I cannot see any reason for accepting: and one is the belief that philosophy, as such, must never criticise but only describe. This belief was fundamental in the sense that it determined the whole manner in which, in his later writings, he discussed philosophical problems; not sharing it, I could not respect his work as I do if I regarded his arguments and insights as depending on the truth of his belief.10 ← 13 | 14 →

At present my point is not that Dummett speaks of a belief here: Wittgenstein’s belief that philosophy, as such, must never criticize but only describe. Rather my point is the question of how one should read Wittgenstein so as to believe that he says that philosophy, as such, must never criticize but only describe. For did he not say that ‘All explanation must disappear, and description alone must take its place’? And did he, i.e. the same philosopher, not also say that ‘Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it’? (PI: 124).11

Wittgenstein does not say that philosophy must only describe. But neither does he say that all explanation must disappear. What he does say is that all explanation must disappear, and description alone must take its place. Obviously, we must do away with all explanation, but doing away with this (very tempting) form of understanding is not enough in philosophy. Something must take its place. And that is something to hold on to. For if description must take the place of all explanation: indeed, what kind of relationship does it actually bear to all explanation? Should we first try to do away with all explanation, only to provide descriptions afterwards? Or is it rather by dint of description, properly done, that we should do away with all explanation? True, not anything will do as ‘description alone’ must take the place of all explanation, that is, description of language. But, then, not any description of language will do either. Linguists describe language, but their descriptions will not do for Wittgenstein’s purpose, any more than those of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, biologists, or, for that matter, the advocates of ordinary language philosophy. But what about Wittgenstein’s descriptions of language? What do they look like? What aspects or features of language do they actually describe, and why should it be precisely these things rather than anything else? Indeed, what about these descriptions that they, as Wittgenstein writes it in the Investigations, receive their light, that is to say their purpose, from the philosophical problems (cf. PI: 109). Is that light and purpose not suggestive of something specific, something uncommon, about Wittgenstein’s descriptions? Michael Dummett has shown little if any interest in these questions, and yet, he was surely not a lonely bird in that respect. But is that not curious? For philosophers curious to know it surely is—if only because they look at descriptions as preliminary steps only, in the light of their own purpose to find redemption in terms of explanations at last. But is that not curious? The eye that looks at descriptions thus and begins to read itself through the Investigations: should that eye not feel the edge of the curiousness and begin to ask questions? ← 14 | 15 → Well, the edge is no doubt felt, but the curiousness is blamed on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.

In order answer the above questions, it does not suffice to attend to what Wittgenstein has produced on the strength of remarks and statements. We must, in addition, pay close attention to his philosophical undertakings, i.e. to his hard work and severe struggles on those philosophical playgrounds where he unceasingly tries to arrive at such description as his own philosophy stipulates. It is one thing to promulgate that we must do away with all explanation in philosophy; quite another thing, as Wittgenstein well realized, to show what it looks like in practice to do away with all explanation—what the very thing looks like in practice that must take its place.

My fascination for these actual doings, for Wittgenstein’s real philosophical struggle, began with On Certainty. In this work, shortly before he passed away, Wittgenstein writes the following: ‘Am I not getting closer and closer to saying that in the end logic cannot be described? You must look at the practice of language, then you will see it’ (OC: 501). This is truly an intriguing remark, exactly when it is set against the background of Wittgenstein’s philosophical objective. For in spite of all his strenuous efforts to describe (the logic) of our language, Wittgenstein more often than not just failed to furnish descriptions only at the end of the day. His terse remark has a real touch of confession, and yet, it is not altogether devoid of hope. But hope, however intense and promising, has never been the kind of incentive that propelled Wittgenstein’s philosophical activities. That is to say, Wittgenstein did not enter the philosophical stage hoping that he might be successful in coming out with descriptions of language alone. Rather, he entered it with a philosophical conception that has been moulded to the core by a deeply felt need that aims at ‘complete clarity’—in his own private head in the first case. What does that mean? It means, as Wittgenstein puts it, ‘that the philosophical problems should completely disappear’ (PI: 133). The modal force of this should does not lie in any of Wittgenstein’s extraordinary powers to bring light into the dark. Ultimately inhering in his interest and deeply felt need, it rather lies in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy as a whole, or, more precisely, in his conception of logic—a conception that stipulates that ‘philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.’ Wittgenstein’s words in On Certainty concern this in the end, hence nothing less than his later conception of logic.

For some time I thought that it was only due to the subject matter in On Certainty and the specific difficulties it posed that Wittgenstein felt compelled to lodge a serious complaint about his long-standing philosophical aim and effort ← 15 | 16 → to describe our language, its logic, or so-called grammar. But the more familiar I became with his philosophical doings in such widely diverging fields of investigation as psychology and the foundations of mathematics, the more doubtful I grew. If Wittgenstein had had difficulties in furnishing descriptions of our language in On Certainty, then, it dawned upon me, surely no more than in any other part of his work as a whole.

Not being concerned with any particular field, then, this book is about Wittgenstein’s descriptions of language as integral parts of a complex movement of thought. This being so, it not merely expounds the kinds of descriptions that Wittgenstein means to give at last; it also pays due attention to the problems and difficulties he faced while being in the business of furnishing such descriptions. Just as there is something characteristic of Wittgenstein’s overall movement of thought, so there is something highly characteristic of these problems and difficulties. Of course, they are far from being the only things that troubled Wittgenstein’s philosophical mind. But the ones this book seeks to expound have something special about them: they are not only stubborn but show a stubbornness that appears to be homemade. They are not so much inherent in Wittgenstein’s way of doing philosophy as in his later philosophy, in its stipulations. Wittgenstein, in other words, saw himself systematically confronted with certain troubles; troubles pertaining to the form in which he tried to solve all philosophical problems at last. Indeed, what troubled him while describing our so-called everyday language are things that you will not find on the philosophical desk of any other philosopher, ancient or modern.


To finish a piece of philosophical writing is to show how much the work done remains work to be done. This book remains as much work in progress as any of its preceding stages, an early one of which was submitted as a doctoral thesis to the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Erfurt, August 2008. I am grateful to Professor Dr. Alex Burri for his help, advice, and patience. Not a Wittgensteinian himself, he nonetheless showed a great interest in my work, listening attentively to my admittedly zealous talks about Wittgenstein’s conception of language description, its fundamental importance, and its amazingly odd reception in the immense secondary literature on Wittgenstein, the man, and his philosophy. I would like to express my gratitude to Hugo van den Berg whose corrections and criticism have made my English look more like English.

1 PI: 109. See References for the abbreviations used to refer to Wittgenstein’s works.

2 Bertrand Russell, My Philosophical Development (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1959), 216f. Cf.: ‘It is not an altogether pleasant experience to find oneself regarded as antiquated after having been, for a time, in the fashion. It is difficult to accept this experience gracefully. When Leibniz, in old age, heard the praises of Berkeley, he remarked: “The young man in Ireland who disputes the reality of bodies seems neither to explain himself sufficiently nor produce adequate arguments. I suspect him of wishing to be known for his paradoxes.” I could not say quite the same of Wittgenstein, by whom I was superseded in the opinion of many British philosophers. It was not by paradox that he wished to be known, but by a suave evasion of paradoxes’ (ibid, 214).

3 Boxed passage between §108 and §109.

4 Cf.: ‘An investigation is possible in connexion with mathematics which is entirely analogous to our investigations of psychology. It is just as little a mathematical investigation as the other is a psychological one. It will not contain calculations, so it is not for example logistic. It might deserve the name of an investigation of the “foundations of mathematics”’ (PPF: 372).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
Vantage-point Philosophy’s problematic Point Witz Urge to explain Redeeming word
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 344 pp.

Biographical notes

Sebastiaan A. Verschuren (Author)

Sebastiaan A. Verschuren studied Biology and Philosophy in Amsterdam (Vrije Universiteit) and received his Ph.D from the University of Erfurt. His research interests include Philosophy of Language, Philosophy of Mathematics, and Philosophy of Mind.


Title: What Does It Look Like?
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
346 pages