Monday, November 3, 2014


170. Wittgenstein and Heidegger as ethical opposites

 Wittgenstein and Heidegger had strikingly similar ideas concerning knowledge and meaning, as based on habit and practice, discussed in preceding items in this blog. David Hume had similar ideas. So did Aristotle, with his notion of practical wisdom. Here also, the meaning of a concept varies across contexts, in practical conduct, is not fixed, exact and universal. Knowledge is mainly unreflected know-how, acquired in learning-by-doing.

The criterion of adequacy of action and speech lies in legitimacy in established language games. Meanings arise within games and are diffuse, varying across different games for different practices.

In ethics, on the other hand, Wittgenstein and Heidegger are opposites.[1] Wittgenstein took the path of Schopenhauer, and Buddhism, in wanting to subdue the will and lose the self, in ataraxia. Heidegger, by contrast, similarly to Kierkegaard, and to Nietzsche, celebrated the will, commitment to existence, and thriving of the self, taking ownership of life, choosing to choose. They gave rise to existentialism.

Braver (2012, p. 50) put it as follows: ‘What Heidegger seeks to ignite, Wittgenstein stamps out’. I side with Heidegger on this.

But how can Heidegger reconcile this individual, voluntaristic choice with his earlier recognition of submission to community judgement (‘Das Man’) of adequacy and legitimacy? How to move from ‘das Man’ to individual authenticity?

The source of this problem lies in the view that social practice precedes meaning and knowledge, and that therefore the human being is ‘thrown’ into the collective of ‘das Man’.

I propose the following. People indeed develop thought from action in the world, in interaction with other people. But they do so along individual life paths, and as a result the cognition they develop varies, yielding what earlier I called cognitive distance.

How, then, can people get away with differences of view and cognition, given the discipline of social practice? Because meanings are diffuse. They may vary not only between language games but also between people.

More precisely, the logic of this derives from the analysis of meaning that I gave, at several places in this blog, as having two faces: reference and sense. Social practice is viable as long as people categorise, identify things as something, with the same result, in a given context or language game. But underlying that common reference is a variety of sense between people, a variety of connotations attached to a shared concept, on the basis of different experience along different life paths. They identify the same things differently.

One can deviate in thought, interpretation, intention and skill while sufficiently conforming to the rules of a game. A game can be played in different styles.

Tapping from different individual repertoires of connotations, people take part in different language games, and this difference in patterns of practice develops, confirms, and consolidates their differences in sense.

If this were not the case, if there were not this variety between people, how could new practices and language games arise or spin off from existing ones?


[1] Here, as before, I employ Lee Braver, 2012, Groundless grounds; A study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, MIT Press.