Category: Links

Wittgenstein’s subtle asserting? Discussion of Gendler’s piece.

E.T. Gendlin of University of Chicago has an interesting paper available online called What Happens When Wittgenstein Asks What Happens When…”? (you can view the article here)

I had originally found it when I was struggling to finish my senior thesis but recently I’ve reviewed it.  I must say that I very much respect Gendlin’s position regarding the issue of whether or not Wittgenstein asserted anything.  Many philosophers assert that Wittgenstein’s didn’t assert anything, that is, didn’t posit anything “as the case”.  I suppose that interpretation makes sense if the prior assumption, that Wittgenstein’s later philosophy flies very much in the face of traditional epistemology, was granted.

Gendlin, on the other hand, rightly points out that Wittgenstein DID assert something (in fact, many things).  Did Wittgenstein’s own grammar trick us into thinking he was really “showing” and not “asserting”?  The passage I’m referring to from Gendlin’s piece looks like this:

It is often said that Wittgenstein dispelled mistakes but did not assert anything. This is not quite so. He said that he could only show, but let us notice: He did assert that he could show. We also find him constantly asking questions and answering them with examples that involve quite affirmative statements. Let me call your attention to some characteristic phrases with which Wittgenstein asks and answers himself. (Gendlin, E.T. What Happens When Wittgenstein Asks What Happens When…”Philosophical Forum, XXVIII. 3, Spring 1997)

It’s a tricky issue, obviously.  The point is that it’s hard to pinpoint which, if any, perspective Wittgenstein actually took in a particular passage.  Sometimes he begins sentences with “I want to say that…” and I get the sense that he means that in the sense that “I want to say that I can afford dinner, but I really can’t.”  Other times, and you’ll have to forgive my lack of examples–PG and Blue/Brown Books aren’t within my reach–Wittgenstein’s use of that same expression makes it seem like he actually is saying such and such, and not merely “wanting to say” in the sense of “hoping” or “semi-intending”.

I appreciate how Gendlin sets up the central tension of the “showing” vs “asserting” problem.

If we talk about Wittgenstein’s showing, we exceed the bounds he set for himself, but if we do not, then we cannot make sense of his position. How to navigate between these two pitfalls is the problem. Rather than pretending to solve it, I will traverse the problem in very small increments, pausing at each juncture to examine exactly what in Wittgenstein we may have violated.

The problem with pursuing the matter “in very small increments” is that one loses the sense that there is a complete picture of Wittgenstein’s intent with respect to showing vs. asserting.  Perhaps at one point (i.e. in one language game) Wittgenstein really means what he says he is only showing (i.e. ‘means’ in the sense of ‘asserts’ or ‘thinks truly of’) while at another point, Wittgenstein’s use of that same clue might be to throw off the reader.  A third possibility is that, similar to the question of whether Plato would actually believe in the Theory of the Forms that is so characteristically attributed to him, the entire discussion of whether or not Wittgenstein actually did ‘posit something he took to be true ‘ is simply an impossible and/or inappropriate discussion.

In any event, I didn’t want this post to be too long, but there are other points I’d like to discuss from the Gendlin piece, so keep your eyes open.  And if anyone else has read it and would like to chime in, please do so.

One final thing I’d like to say for the record: Gendler > Searle with respect to “how one ought to go about discussing Wittgenstein”.  I’m sure the comparison isn’t fair, its just that I can’t get this one interpretation Searle uses of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy; it was in his piece called “Intentionality”, I think.  Anyway, Searle isn’t exactly as into Wittgenstein probably as much as I am, or Gendler (when he wrote it) so  don’t take that assertion (did I mean that as a joke in this context? not sure) TOO seriously.

LOL@ “Philosophical Tribulations”

Simon, over at, just posted a link to a hilarious application of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy. Here’s my response to it, available here (as in ‘below’) and here:


Wow, I had to share this with my gf, who knows nothing of philosophy (she’s a chemist) but nonetheless found it rather hilarious.

Its both sad and delightful that Wittgenstein’s method can be emulated in such “trivial” –but not disinteresting–ways.

I think the “I want to say, ARRRGGGGGHH” example sheds a lot of light on what the reader feels when reading Wittgenstein. Of course, the internalization of “ARRRRGGGGHHH” can be as exciting and motivating as it is an ‘expression of frustration’.

By the way, I want to amend my statement regarding my gf’s knowledge of philosophy.  Contrary to what I said originally, she DOES know something about philosophy, at least to the extent that I am constantly talking about her use of a word at one moment as compared to another shows how we ought not to think of ‘meaning’ as a function of the commonality of word-meanings but rather as the way those words can be used in various game-like contexts.

In any event, as my comment no doubt suggests, I probably reflected too much on the “philosophical” significance of the Philosophical Tribulations.  😉