“If Some People Looked Like Elephants and Others Like Cats”: Wittgenstein on Understanding Others and Forms of Life

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Constantine Sandis


This essay introduces a tension between the public Wittgenstein’s optimism about knowledge of other minds and the private Wittgenstein’s pessimism about understanding others. There are three related reasons which render the tension unproblematic. First, the barriers he sought to destroy were metaphysical ones, whereas those he struggled to overcome were psychological. Second, Wittgenstein’s official view is chiefly about knowledge while the unofficial one is about understanding. Last, Wittgenstein’s official remarks on understanding themselves fall into two distinct categories that don’t match the focus of his unofficial ones. One is comprised of those remarks in the Investigations that challenge the thought that understanding is an inner mental process. The other consists primarily of those passages in PPF and On Certainty concerned with the difficulty of understanding others without immersing oneself into their form of life. In its unofficial counterpart, Wittgenstein focuses on individuals, rather than collectives. The official and the unofficial sets of remarks are united in assuming a distinction between understanding a person and understanding the meaning of their words. If to understand a language is to understand a form of life, then to understand a person is to understand a whole life.

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Author Biography

Constantine Sandis, University of Hertfordshire

Constantine Sandis is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire, Treasurer of the British Wittgenstein Society, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He is the author of The Things We Do and Why We Do Them (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and editor or co-editor of several books, most recently Philosophy of Action: An Anthology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), Cultural Heritage Ethics (Open Book Publishers, 2014), Human Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and A Companion to the Philosophy of Action (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). His current projects include a book on Wittgenstein’s remark about the speaking lion.


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