Thursday, May 04, 2006

An unbalanced diet - one of my favorite insights by Wittgenstein

In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein says something in section 593 that I think is underappreciated. He says:
"A main cause of philosophical disease -- an unbalanced diet: one nourishes one's thinking with only one kind of example."
I'm not completely sure why this is underappreciated, but I have an idea. Philosophy is supposed to be a very general study. Some might say that it attempts to study things in the most general ways possible. Since we are looking at general phenomena, a solution to one particular problem should apply to others in the same area, e.g. propositional attitudes. As John Perry pointed out, there are a lot of propositional attitudes, belief, doubt, thought, appreciate, hate, etc., but philosophers generally focus on belief and thought. Another reason that this is underappreciated is that philosophers want to talk to each other, not past each other, so to help the direct discourse along, so the thinking goes, talking about the same examples will let us talk to each other more easily. This has the unfortunate side effect that only a small set of examples or cases are looked at, e.g. the sentence "It is raining". In the philosophy of math, philosohpers generally focus on arithmetic, leaving the rest of math blowing in the wind, so to speak. The idea goes, I imagine, that you shouldn't have to check each case. Come up with a solution to one and you thereby come up with a solution to all of them. The problem with this idea should be obvious. If you appeal to some particularities of the case you look at, your solution won't work for the other problems. You miss generality without even realizing it. I'm not sure if that was something Wittgenstein was getting at with his ardent desire to look at particular cases, but I think it is a good lesson nonetheless.

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