“Don’t think, but look!” – The most common misconception about Wittgenstein?


Ludwig Wittgenstein writes in his Philosophical Investigations “Don’t think, but look!” (PI 66), which (in line with Jung) implies “Don’t judge, but perceive!”. The most common misconception about Wittgenstein could perhaps be described like this; people assume he’s making judgements, when his philosophy is essentially about perception. A turn from judging to perception may be what he is referring to when he speaks of “The reordering of understanding that creates the greatest difficulty”.

“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”

In earlier posts I’ve argued that Wittgenstein was an intuitive person and not a thinker, and also I’ve argued that according to Wittgenstein the task of philosophy to use introverted intuition. We note, in accordance with Jung that intuition is a perceiving function, while thinking is a judging function. And here the misconception: people assume that Wittgenstein is making judgements, when in fact he is perceiving. Example of this, is the famous quote by Wittgenstein:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence

To the form it looks just like a judgement, and this has also been the common interpretation. Some people have hailed it, seeing it as a defense for “rationality”, while other people have criticized it for being narrow-minded and Gedankenpolizei (thought police). In both cases they regard the quote as a judgement with content, which is just as wrong.

From a thinking perspective the famous quote by Wittgenstein is naturally read as:
“What is irrational (i.e. not in line with “known facts” or “known rules”) has to pass over in silence”

From the proper intuitive perspective it is read as:
“What is unimaginable has to pass over in silence” (and remember that this really a kind of perception and not a judgement)

To correctly understand it, is to understand that it says nothing at all, that it is intended to be merely a tautology.** From both a thinking, sensing and feeling perspective it is out of content (but people in thinking, sensing or feeling mode will be inclined to “automatically” read in something in it anyway – which I show example of below).

**Ray Monk, Wittgenstein biographer, has argued that it does indeed mean to say things, that it’s a kind of moralistic standpoint. In a sense, he sure is right. But it’s a kind of complicated reasoning, likely to cause confusion, and I don’t think it needs to be discussed here.

“The reordering of understanding that creates the greatest difficulty”

Consider this quote by Wittgenstein, and then consider the figure:

Unrest in philosophy comes from philosophers looking at, seeing, philosophy all wrong, i.e., cut up into (infinite) horizontal strips, as it were, rather than (finite) vertical strips.(1) This reordering of understanding creates the greatest difficulty


(The quote doesn’t say exactly what this figure shows, but I do think that the point is essentially the same.
And another note: in this figure I’ve written “p ^ -p” as example of the “unimaginable”, later on however I don’t think it was so appropriate, “p ^ -p” is example of something impossible, but in this category would also fit the unimaginable and possible (say for example “metaphysics”))

The distinction between “rational” and “irrational” is central for the thinker (2), but for the intuitive it is replaced by a distinction between “imaginable” and “unimaginable”. Both the rational and the irrational is within the realm of the imaginable, therefore that distinction doesn’t interest the intuitive. And since the distinction between the rational and the irrational doesn’t border to the unimaginable, the thinker will feel no reason to bother about the imaginable/unimaginable distinction.

(I think this can help to explain the famous dispute between Wittgenstein and Russell whether there was any rhinoceros in the room. Russell wanted Wittgenstein to agree on that there was no rhinoceros in the room, but Wittgenstein just dismissed Russell.
To speculate whether there is any rhinoceros in the room, is to make a thinker’s distinction, a distinction on what is a rational belief and what is irrational belief. In other words, it is to draw a horizontal line. If I am right on this, Wittgenstein must’ve found the issue uninteresting, in so far as he preferred to be in intuitive mode.)

Examples of how Wittgenstein gets interpreted from a thinking perspective

When a person is in thinking-mode, the only interest is to draw horizontal lines, that is make distinctions between what is rational and what is irrational. Anything other than horizontal lines will be considered as irrelevant and left unrecognized.
Say someone comes in drawing a vertical line, then there exists two alternatives from a thinking perspective, 1) To conclude that the vertical line says nothing at all or 2) to construct out of it a horizontal line – and thus read in something which really isn’t there. In any of the cases, the thinker will regard it as useless, either because it says nothing at all, or because it is irrational. I think that the comment below can help to illustrate this:

(This is written by a fellow blogger – Thomas Cotterill – who I do respect, but I think he’s getting Wittgenstein wrong this time)

Dawn M. Wilson’s position [when describing Wittgenstein’s way of doing philosophy] is the modern one that has reduced philosophy to a branch of philology. To philosophize in the modern sense is to argue endlessly (and pointlessly) over the interpretation of texts. Wittgenstein believed that all philosophical disputes arose from disagreements over the definitions of terms: Wilson’s “… a failure to see clearly whether sentences have sense.” Of what use is this degree of hair-splitting to anyone other than ivory-tower scholars? It is every bit as bad as the religious scholars arguing over how many angels you can fit on the end of a pin. Philosophy on these terms has lost its utility and led people to take up more accessible, but extremely foolish (even completely irrational) belief systems.

For example, to someone looking for answers, of what use is “The task of philosophy is not to say something, but to see clearly what can be said.” As endlessly fascinating as this imaginative speculation may be to those with nothing else to do, it serves no practical purpose in the real world. It is as they say, merely academic. (ref)

The idea of Wittgensteinian philosophy as a branch of philology, that it’s about arguing over interpretations, disputes over definition of terms, the usage of the word “speculation” seems to rely on the assumption that it’s about thinking.(3) I don’t think Wittgenstein would’ve recognized himself in this.

What practical purpose does Wittgensteinian philosophy serve in the real world?

However, even though one recognizes the distinction between thinking and intuition, one may still insist that the Wittgensteinian way of doing philosophy is useless, and that it ”serves no practical purpose in the real world”.

Let us then consider another quote by Wittgenstein:

What I give is the morphology of the use of an expression. I show that it has kinds of uses of which you had not dreamed. In philosophy one feels forced to look at a concept in a certain way. What I do is suggest, or even invent, other ways of looking at it. I suggest possibilities of which you had not previously thought. You thought there was one possibility, or only two at most. But I made you think of others. Furthermore, I made you see that it was absurd to expect the concept to conform to those narrow possibilities. Thus your mental cramp is relieved, and you are free to look around the field of use of the expression and to describe the different kinds of uses of it.

(This can be compared to Wittgenstein’s simile that the aim of philosophy is “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle”)

The potential practical use of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is that it makes you see alternatives, which can help you make better decisions. When you are dividing between two bad alternatives, it can be a great relief to be offered a third better alternative. (However, when a person continues without much reflection to spit out a forth, fifth, sixth, seventh… etc alternative, then he has turned himself into a menace.)


(1) In the original quote the words ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ are swapped.
(2)The terms “rational”/”irrational” can be used in different senses. The sense I’m using it here should not be confused with how Jung uses the terms. Another important note here is that the line between the rational and the irrational is arbitrarily drawn, i.e. under certain circumstances a thinker may also find “pink flying elephant” rational.
(3)In this post it is argued nicely why Wittgenstein wasn’t a philologist, and also why Wittgenstein didn’t have any “Philosophy of language”, Did Wittgenstein have a Philosophy of Language?

Reference and further reading

Ludwig Wittgenstein – “Philosophy” in The Big Typescript
Carl Jung – Psychological Types


About Dandre

Former student of philosophy, maths and literature. Now studying master program in sociology. Some thinkers of central interest include Ludwig Wittgenstein, C. G. Jung and Pierre Bourdieu.
This entry was posted in Jungian Typology, Logic and science, Metaphilosophy, Wittgenstein and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Don’t think, but look!” – The most common misconception about Wittgenstein?

  1. Phil says:

    Makes me wonder if Cotterill is thinking in a Ti mode. Very concerned with accuracy of definition. Thanks for showing an enlightening view of Wittgenstein’s philosophy.

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