Are We Living in a Fly-Bottle?

In a pair of Times' Stone essays, Paul Horwich (NYU) and Michael Lynch (Connecticut) take stock of Wittgenstein's views on philosophy, developing penetrating yet divergent positions.

From Horwich's essay,

...It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on — and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding. Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?

If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress — by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues. Therefore traditional philosophical theorizing must give way to a painstaking identification of its tempting but misguided presuppositions and an understanding of how we ever came to regard them as legitimate.

From Lynch's essay,

“To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle ”— that, Wittgenstein once said, was the aim of his philosophy. While it is perhaps unclear whether anyone — philosopher or fly — should be flattered by this comparison, his overall point is clear enough, as Paul Horwich notes in his recent piece, “Was Wittgenstein Right?” When we get curious about philosophical problems we are drawn into puzzles by the promise of sweet enlightenment, only to find ourselves caught in frustration (and banging our heads against the same wall over and over again). What we need, Wittgenstein thinks, is liberation — liberation from the prison of pseudo-problems we have brought upon ourselves; liberation from traditional philosophy.

Horwich’s analysis is penetrating and important. Doubtless some will quarrel with it as a reading of Wittgenstein; but I will not — not only because I think it is largely right, but because I’m more interested in whether it is true. Not surprisingly, I have my doubts.

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