Philosophy, he writes, “is not a theory but an activity.” It strives, not after scientific truth, but after conceptual clarity.
How does one demonstrate an understanding of a piece of music? Well, perhaps by playing it expressively, or by using the right sort of metaphors to describe it. And how does one explain what “expressive playing” is? What is needed, Wittgenstein says, is “a culture”: “If someone is brought up in a particular culture-and then reacts to music in such-and-such a way, you can teach him the use of the phrase ‘expressive playing.’” What is required for this kind of understanding is a form of life, a set of communally shared practices, together with the ability to hear and see the connections made by the practitioners of this form of life.
“Understanding a sentence,” Wittgenstein says in Philosophical Investigations, “is more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think.” Understanding a sentence, too, requires participation in the form of life, the “language-game,” to which it belongs. The reason computers have no understanding of the sentences they process is not that they lack sufficient neuronal complexity, but that they are not, and cannot be, participants in the culture to which the sentences belong. A sentence does not acquire meaning through the correlation, one to one, of its words with objects in the world; it acquires meaning through the use that is made of it in the communal life of human beings.
All this may sound trivially true. Wittgenstein himself described his work as a “synopsis of trivialities.” But when we are thinking philosophically we are apt to forget these trivialities and thus end up in confusion, imagining, for example, that we will understand ourselves better if we study the quantum behaviour of the sub-atomic particles inside our brains, a belief analogous to the conviction that a study of acoustics will help us understand Beethoven’s music. Why do we need reminding of trivialities? Because we are bewitched into thinking that if we lack a scientific theory of something, we lack any understanding of it.
One of the crucial differences between the method of science and the non-theoretical understanding that is exemplified in music, art, philosophy and ordinary life, is that science aims at a level of generality which necessarily eludes these other forms of understanding. This is why the understanding of people can never be a science. To understand a person is to be able to tell, for example, whether he means what he says or not, whether his expressions of feeling are genuine or feigned. And how does one acquire this sort of understanding? Wittgenstein raises this question at the end of Philosophical Investigations. “Is there,” he asks, “such a thing as ‘expert judgment’ about the genuineness of expressions of feeling?” Yes, he answers, there is.
When Wittgenstein was once discussing his favourite novel, The Brothers Karamazov, with Maurice Drury, Drury said that he found the character of Father Zossima impressive. Of Zossima, Dostoevsky writes: “It was said that… he had absorbed so many secrets, sorrows, and avowals into his soul that in the end he had acquired so fine a perception that he could tell at the first glance from the face of a stranger what he had come for, what he wanted and what kind of torment racked his conscience.” “Yes,” said Wittgenstein, “there really have been people like that, who could see directly into the souls of other people and advise them.”
“An inner process stands in need of outward criteria,” runs one of the most often quoted aphorisms of Philosophical Investigations. It is less often realised what emphasis Wittgenstein placed on the need for sensitive perception of those “outward criteria” in all their imponderability. And where does one find such acute sensitivity? Not, typically, in the works of psychologists, but in those of the great artists, musicians and novelists. “People nowadays,” Wittgenstein writes in Culture and Value, “think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them-that does not occur to them.”
At a time like this, when the humanities are institutionally obliged to pretend to be sciences, we need more than ever the lessons about understanding that Wittgenstein-and the arts-have to teach us.