Quietism in philosophy

Christian asked:

Is Quietism the closest thing there is to an “anti-philosophy” philosophy?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Nice one, Christian. This is the first time in 23 years that we’ve been asked this question, and it is undoubtedly very relevant to my own research.

Wittgenstein is most often quoted as an example of a quietist approach to philosophy. Here is a paragraph from his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations which makes the point with pungent force:

133. It is not our aim to refine or complete the system of rules for the use of our words in unheard-of ways.

For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.

The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question. Instead, we now demonstrate a method, by examples; and the series of examples can be broken off. Problems are solved (difficulties eliminated), not a single problem.

There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.

My former thesis supervisor at Oxford University, John McDowell, is well-known for advocating a quietist reading of the later Wittgenstein. It was a topic that we argued over on a number of occasions. McDowell once confessed to me that his main motivation for doing philosophy (or what he understood as ‘philosophy’) was the statements made by other philosophers. G.E. Moore would be another example. Trained as a classicist, McDowell’s most notable gift is a finely-tuned sense of when a philosophical pronouncement is ‘off’ in some subtle way. I still have his painstaking notes on my D.Phil thesis running to a dozen pages or more.

It has been a matter of debate whether one calls the later Wittgenstein’s view ‘anti-philosophy’ or meta-philosophy. I would argue, however, that it is neither. If you read Philosophical Investigations, rather than just dip in here and there, you will find yourself thinking about some of the deepest questions in philosophy. And Wittgenstein believed that these were worth thinking about. The only difference from previous philosophical works — of course, it is a huge difference — is that the ‘clarity’ we achieve is not a ‘theory’, or some astonishingly new a priori insight into the nature of reality, but rather a sense of liberation, a heavy, Sisyphean load taken off the philosopher’s shoulders.

This represents a radical take on the aims and methods of philosophy, even more so than philosophers like Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, whose works, innovative as they are, seem less challenging to the status quo in English-speaking philosophy.

As someone who feels that heavy weight keenly, I don’t agree with Wittgenstein that the questions that exercise me are somehow mistaken or illusory. For example, consider the puzzling statement, ‘I might not have existed but someone exactly like me might have existed in my place.’ (See my eponymous book subtitled The Idiotic Conundrum https://www.amazon.com/dp/B089FQZVQR.) I believe that there are truths about the ultimate nature of reality that human beings may, possibly, never get to know. And, yes, it is tormenting to know that I will die with these questions still unanswered. You could say that this is a classic case of the kind of philosophizing that Wittgenstein, and McDowell, are against!

This should not take anything away from Philosophical Investigations, one of the most important works in philosophy published in the 20th century. As with other great philosophers, it is important to distinguish Wittgenstein’s philosophical contributions from his view of the significance of those contributions. One thing I do agree with, as I argued in my D.Phil thesis, is that we are looking for a complete solution to the problems that grip us — even if such a solution, as I believe, is unlikely ever to be achieved.

I conclude this answer with a quote from my Metaphysics of Meaning (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1980963061) which illustrates the extent to which I agree with Wittgenstein’s remark in para. 133:

Metaphysics demands completeness and wholeness because ultimate reality is not something of which one could rest content with a partial view. The very uniqueness of metaphysical knowledge, by contrast with other forms of knowledge, its lack of corroborating evidence from any other field of inquiry renders insecure any knowledge of ultimate reality which does not not only know it completely but also in such a way as to integrate all partial perceptions into an interconnected, meaningful whole. For metaphysics must aim at complete clarity, even if it knows that such an ideal is practically unattainable; a ‘metaphysics’ which stops short of attempting to solve all the problems which present themselves in the course of its investigations simply risks reduplicating those very problems for which it claims a ‘solution’ in the form of an ineliminable residue of unanswered questions or unsatisfied intuitions.

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