Work on Oneself: ­Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Psychology

by Fergus Kerr

Institute for the Psychological Sciences Press, 119 pages, $19.95

As he lay dying, awaiting a last visit from friends, Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” It was certainly an unusual one. He attended grade school with Hitler, had three of his brothers commit suicide, and”just at the moment when he was achieving fame as a philosopher”left the academic world to teach schoolchildren.

Paradoxes abound, not just in his life but also in his thought. One of the few towering figures of twentieth-century philosophy, Wittgenstein articulated no grand system. He delighted in oracular modes of discourse designed less to solve than to dissolve philosophical problems. Coupling an antisystematic bent with a recovery of ordinary language, Wittgenstein offered an alternative to the decline of continental philosophy into jargon-riddled mysticism and of analytic philosophy into merely academic precision.

His impact is wider than philosophy, however. Wittgenstein continues to exert an influence in fields as diverse as philosophy of language, ethics, literary studies, aesthetics, and even theology.

In a new book, Work on Oneself: Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Psychology , Fergus Kerr argues for the philosophical and psychological significance of a neglected series of lectures on philosophical psychology that Wittgenstein gave at Cambridge toward the end of his career. Kerr, editor of New Blackfriars and a prolific author, has written before on the philosopher, advancing a Wittgensteinian reform of theology ( Theology After Wittgenstein ). This latest book is not nearly as substantive as his previous books. In truth, it is not much more than an introductory essay. Still, despite its brevity, the book is in many ways illuminating, not least for how, perhaps unintentionally, it underscores the serious limitations to the use of Wittgenstein in theology.

Kerr nicely summarizes the debates over Wittgenstein’s career”particularly the debate over the purported difference between the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (after the publication of which he retreated to teach school­children) and the later Philosophical Investigations . Kerr wonders whether we ought not to admit the possibility of a third Wittgenstein: the philosopher of psychology.

Much of what Wittgenstein has to say about psychology will not surprise those familiar with his more famous works. Wittgenstein is suspicious of “grand theories” and strives to ground his analysis of philosophical concepts in the practical order. Wittgenstein points out the vacuity of mind-body debates, whether these take the form of defenses of dualism or of an eliminative materialism. He wants to salvage ordinary speech about thought, language, and the soul”language denigrated as “folk psychology” by hardcore reductionists. He comes very close to making the argument, popular in early twentieth-century continental philosophy, that all understanding, including that afforded by science, is embedded within ordinary life and practice.

The accentuation of practices”“forms of life,” as they have come to be called”might seem to leave Wittgenstein vulnerable to a ­reductionism of a different sort: ­behaviorism. But this is misleading. Wittgenstein was certainly not against empirical or statistical studies in psychology; in fact, he participated in scientific experiments in the field of psychology at Cambridge. His focus, however, is not on data derived from experiments or on a clarification of the conceptual apparatus of psychology. Instead, he urges a step back so that we can get our bearings regarding psychological questions. He attends to “puzzles” that emerge from looking at “what psychologists say” and “what non-psychologists say.” Philosophy provides not new experiences or experiments but a way of “looking at what we’ve always known.”

That return to ordinary experience, to the working assumptions that give resonance and vitality to our lives, is perhaps Wittgenstein’s ­greatest contribution to twentieth-­century philosophy. Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations offers phi­lo­so­phy a way out of its insuperable conundrums”about the existence of the external world and other minds, for example”not by providing a new system capable of answering all questions but by way of ­freedom from such barren speculation. In many ways a deflationary project, Wittgenstein’s thought has nonetheless a positive impulse, a recovery of the pre-philosophical world.

The method here, if it can be called a method, rests upon a certain paradox that philosophers, especially British analytic philosophers, were likely to overlook: What is “always before our eyes” is often the hardest thing to see.

Kerr also ably puts to rest another traditional objection against Witt­genstein, namely, that he reduces the world to language and conceives of human beings as dwelling in a “language bubble.” Following Norman Malcolm, Kerr responds that, by attending to the contours of a properly human form of life, Wittgenstein was recovering a kind of ­anthropology.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book treats of Wittgenstein’s thoughts about Freud. As Kerr notes, Freud, whose Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900, was a huge influence in the Vienna of Wittgenstein’s day. Witt­genstein’s sister, Gretl, had gone to Freud for psychoanalysis not because she was suffering from a debilitating neurosis but because she was intellectually curious. Although not denying the significance of sexual desire and psychosexual trauma, Wittgenstein was skeptical about the scientific value of such alleged explanations of behavior or thought. He wondered whether the fact that the explanation is bizarre and repellent is not precisely what makes it attractive to some. In attempting to account for the present by appeal to the past, psychoanalysis does not predict ”does not tell us “how things will now go.” Instead, it offers a kind of mythology, an invitation to enter the underworld and gain access to a hidden knowledge. In attempting to lay bare the roots of the Oedipus myth, Freud ends up offering a new myth. Freud was, according to Wittgenstein, a master of similes.

Instead of dismissing myths and metaphors, or allowing them to operate as conjuring tricks, Wittgenstein urges us to probe them to see what they might reveal about the human condition. Given his anti­reductionist bent, we should not be suprised that Wittgenstein had an ongoing interest in religion. He learned Danish to read Kierkegaard, examined Newman, appreciated the sermon on hell in Joyce’s Portrait , and purportedly even entertained the notion of becoming a Catholic priest. Still, Kerr’s chapter on “Wittgenstein and Catholicism” is disappointing.

The problem is that what Wittgenstein says about Catholicism, as Kerr concedes, is at best cryptic and at worst shallow and bizarre. Some of his comments seem vapid in a New Age way. For example, he proposes that one ought to try experiments in religion to see what helps, and he oddly claims that the First Vatican Council defines God as “another being, like me only different, eternal and more powerful.” Then there is that story about his considering the priesthood in 1919. Why did he not go that route? Four years of study, he thought, were too long.

In Wittgenstein’s preference for ritual and forms of life over speculative thought, Kerr detects both a reaction against neoscholastic apologetics and a recovery of a deeply Catholic insight about the priority of ritual over reasoning. The difficulties here are multiple. We simply do not know enough about Wittgenstein’s own early education to determine whether he knew enough neo­scholasticism against which to react. Moreover, as Kerr notes, Wittgenstein moves so far from doctrine and the intellectual content of the faith that he risks divesting it of any intelligibility”hardly a Catholic move.

This is not to say that Wittgenstein has nothing to offer theology. Indeed, as Kerr (in Theology After Wittgenstein ) and others have argued, Wittgenstein can help theologians to recover the intimate connection between participation and the language of belief in liturgical ritual, even as he reminds us that the gospel becomes unintelligible if it is reduced to a set of propositions isolated from a distinctive form of life.

Yet, Kerr does not stress the potential cost of following Wittgensteinian theology. The most worrisome matter here is that Kerr passes over, in (apparently affirmative) silence, Wittgenstein’s own affirmation of the phrase “In the beginning was the deed.” Although the phrase might well be harmonious with Wittgenstein’s elevation of practice and ritual, it directly contravenes the opening of the Gospel of John, the great source of Christian speculative theology.

But then Wittgenstein could scarcely be described as learned in theology or premodern philosophy. His antispeculative thrust, a welcome corrective to the distortions and exaggerations of modernity, could not but truncate and transform Christian theology into something strange and ­unrecognizable.


Thomas S. Hibbs , Distinguished Professor of Ethics and dean of the honors college at Baylor University, is author of Virtue’s Splendor and, most recently, Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption.