welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Wittgenstein: Rethinking the Inner by Paul Johnston

Dan Hutto ponders what Ludwig Wittgenstein said about the inner life.

Ludwig Wittgenstein should have left an indelible mark on our understanding of the mind, but sadly his approach is often misunderstood. Too many accounts of his views on the subject expressly attempt to locate them on a grid of contemporary positions within the philosophy of mind, for purposes of comparison. Although the intention is noble, forcing Wittgenstein’s thinking into the framework of the standard assumptions of today’s philosophy of mind is bound to distort it. For example, a common error is to understand him as sponsoring some form of sophisticated ‘logical’ behaviourism. Against this background it is refreshing to find a readable monograph that attempts to reveal the character of Wittgenstein’s thought, not only by giving due care and attention to his agenda, but by explicitly helping the reader to understand its unique character. A key virtue of Johnston’s treatment is that it reminds the reader that, as the title suggests, Wittgenstein was attempting to get us to ‘re-think’ the Inner in a way which challenges the very picture of the mind that underpins many standard philosophical assumptions. Importantly, he reminds us throughout the book that Wittgenstein did not wish to deny the Inner, or our concepts thereof, but rather he wanted us to focus properly on its role in our lives. For this reason, any uncritical attempt to put him on today’s philosophical map is fatally misguided.

Johnston’s book is a valuable contribution both to Wittgenstein scholarship and to contemporary philosophy of mind, challenging the tendency to present us with a limited set of options as if they were exhaustive.

Because of the nature of his project, Johnston tends to focus on passages and remarks from Wittgenstein that are less well known and not frequently discussed in the literature. Although both the first and final chapter deal with some vital and familiar misunderstandings, such as the nature of putative reports about ‘inner episodes’ and the criteria by which we ascribe them, the central chapters give greater attention to less frequently examined passages in Wittgenstein’s philosophy of psychology – such as his remarks on meaning-blindness and the musicality of language. Johnston sees both as related to Wittgenstein’s better known comments on the phenomena of ‘seeing-as’ which in turn connect to his view that language has its basis in ‘a shared form of life’, or in his words, “the underlying kinship which manifests itself in the fact that one person’s spontaneous reactions are shared by others” (p.127). Just as our shared capacity to appreciate, understand and find meaning in music is grounded in this kind of kinship so too is our capacity to recognise what is expressed in psychological language.

Another quality of Johnston’s book is his tendency to concentrate at length on particular examples. Unlike some approaches this reflects, and to some extent mimics, Wittgenstein’s own method of providing ‘reminders for a particular purpose’ rather than offering general theories and explanations. Wittgenstein regarded this as the unpardonable error of those who mistakenly see the method of philosophy as continuous with the ‘scientific’. This aspect is revealed particularly well in Johnston’s discussion of the complexity of the Inner, which acts as a talisman to ward off any attempt at reading a naive reductionism into Wittgenstein’s writings.

But, one might ask: Is this a book designed solely for Wittgenstein aficionados? Can it, and Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophy, be comfortably ignored by today’s philosophers of mind? I think that Johnston does great service by showing the threat that Wittgenstein poses to the questionable assumptions inherent in much philosophy of mind and cognitive science.

The book also highlights potential limitations with the Wittgensteinian approach. Johnston’s second and third chapters,respectively titled ‘The World of the Senses’ and ‘The Mystery of Thought’, give a good account of Wittgenstein’s views concerning the concepts of experience and thought. For example, Johnston notes that for Wittgenstein the idea that we have experience of objects is logically prior to the idea of experience itself. For when describing experiences it is no accident that we find ourselves doing so by appealing to the characteristic properties of public objects which are visible to all. Thus, when I say my experience of red is that of a particular shade, I may well point to some object in order to clarify the nature of the experience. In discussing the errors thrown up by misguided attempts to understand thought in terms of inner speech or images Johnston notes that, in Wittgenstein’s view “the concept of thinking does not apply to a particular process but highlights certain aspects of human activity” (p.95). In both cases Wittgenstein’s concern with the nature, development and employment of the concepts of ‘thought’ and ‘experience’ places a natural limit on the scope and direction of his inquiry.

Bearing this in mind, we can ask questions about the differing ambitions of the philosopher and the cognitive scientist. We can ask whether these can in any way be sensibly reconciled or if they are neces-sarily in conflict. Or are they perhaps so different that they ought, and will, simply pass one another by?

I think the cause of much of the resistance to Wittgenstein’s approach is his denigration of ‘the scientific method’ in philosophy and his desire to focus on description as opposed to explanation. Does this mean he was against all forms of explanation? Certainly not. It simply means that for him the philosopher’s task was not one of explaining the basis of our concepts. As he put it, his was not an attempt at ‘natural history’. Does that mean that cognitive science and philosophy of mind could or should step in to play that role? My own view is that it is consistent with accepting many of the lessons of Wittgenstein, that we could answer this question with a cautious ‘yes’. That is to say, this seems possible as long as the attempts at explanation are not ‘conceptually’ based and as long as they do not proceed by promoting confused or ‘false pictures’ about the nature of mind.

It would take more space than I can afford to provide a detailed account of the possibilities, but some of the recent work on non-conceptual content can be seen as an attempt to put just such flesh on the notion of specific ‘forms of life’ and the reactions they underpin. Such accounts can act as a means of better understanding the basic, pre-linguistic behaviour upon which our ‘language games’ rest. Naturally, such investigations would not be ‘philosophical’ in Wittgenstein’s sense because they do not chart the employment of our concepts but, at best, loosely attempt to explain what underpins them. Such accounts are not in the spirit of Wittgensteinian philosophy, but they are not wholly opposed to it and they need not ignore its warnings.

Provided such accounts know their limits there need be no conflict between them and conceptual investigations. By providing a clear vision of the nature of Wittgenstein’s project and views Johnston’s book helps to show the natural limits of both.

© Dr D. Hutto 1998

Dan Hutto is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire, and is Director of the Centre for Meaning and Metaphysical Studies. His latest book ‘Beyond Physicalism’ will be published shortly by John Benjamin.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X