Who is the greatest twentieth century philosopher and why?
Answer by Shaun Williamson
Well my answer would be Wittgenstein but the problem is that Wittgenstein is not a philosopher, he is an anti-philosopher. In his later work his view of philosophy was that there are no philosophical truths (this is not the same as claiming that there cannot be any philosophical truths). He also realised that there are no true philosophical theorems. There are no true solutions to philosophical problems but then there are no real philosophical problems. All we can do in philosophy is dissolve philosophical problems by reminding ourselves of what we already know about our own language.
For Wittgenstein all philosophies are equally false and that is why philosophers can never agree on philosophical truths or the solution to philosophical problems. However he also realised that thinking philosophically is a natural human temptation and that philosophical problems are as deep as the roots of our language.
‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our own language.’
‘You don’t get rid of philosophy by doing more philosophy.’
‘Nothing is hidden, everything is on the surface.’
‘Our language is in order just as it is.’
Many of the people who write about and interpret Wittgenstein are philosophers so they are often in the grip of the the very illusions that he fought against. They try to turn his writings into philosophical arguments that support their own philosophy. A good example of this is the so called ‘Private language argument’. The only later work that he prepared for publication is ‘Philosophical Investigations’ and it is important that is is called Investigations and not ‘Philosophical Arguments’. All of his later work is interesting but keep in mind that the people who have prepared it for publication are philosophers who did not really understand what he was saying.
This means that their interpretations are suspect. You cannot understand Wittgenstein if you think you are in possession of some philosophical truth or you think that you have the solution to a philosophical problem. However if you have a good knowledge of Western philosophy and you find it deeply puzzling then maybe you can approach Wittgenstein with an open mind. This may make him seem like some sort of mystic but Wittgenstein wasn’t vague or mystical. He was a logician who made important contributions to logic. Above all he came to value consistency, completeness and coherency in philosophy.
If you really understand what Wittgenstein was saying then you will no longer feel the need to think philosophically or search for philosophical truths. One writers who understands Wittgenstein is P.M.S. Hacker of St. Johns College Oxford.
One thought on “Greatest 20th century philosopher”
What is a problem anyway? There ‘are’ no problems. Problems are obstacles to a questioning mind. I like to compare this to the study of the arts. For the composer, there are ‘problems of music’, for the painter there are ‘problems of painting’, for the architect there are ‘problems of architecture’. If you are neither a composer nor a painter nor an architect, those problems do not exist. And even the nature of those problems change over time. The problems of painting were different for Rafael and for Rembrandt and for Picasso. This is totally different from the problems of math or physics, where one may speak of ‘objective’ problems to be solved once and for all. Great philosophers open new vistas to the world around and inside. They make us see the world from new perspectives and change our questions. Thus there are even paradigm-shifts in philosophy. Some old ‘problems’ look outdated and pointless, others look new and fascinating. Because of this, philosophy — like the arts — never comes to an end, because there IS no end to philosophy. And because of this there are even histories of the histories of philosophy, since the way of looking at the problems of philosophy is changing all the time like the way painters are looking at the world. The mind of the painter is not a physical camera, and neither is a philosophers mind.