Rupert Read: Wittgenstein, greatest philosopher of the 20th century

An old friend of the Williams Project, Dr Rupert Read, from the Philosophy Department of the University of East Anglia, paid us another visit. He introduced us to one of the (allegedly) most difficult philosophers, the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein, who worked and taught in Cambridge. Wittgenstein was keen to make sure that the questions we ask make sense: a philosopher should “treat a question like an illness” – not immediately trying to answer it, but testing it, diagnosing it, and, if it isn’t quite right, trying to fix it. For example, a question like “What time is it on the sun?” is meaningless, as the whole idea of measuring time is specific to our civilisation on this planet, so it’s wrong to even start trying to answer it.

Dr Read also introduced us to Wittgenstein’s way of illustrating the difficulties as well as the easinesses involved in sharing personal or private sensations: trying to describe pains to each other can seem as if we each had a box containing a beetle, which we tried to describe to others. We can, it might seem, only look into our own box, so can know about other people’s beetles only from what they tell us. Moreover, there might even not be a ‘beetle’ there at all. But all of this is only because we tend to think of ”private sensations” as like ‘private’ objects. If we think of sensations rather as always connected to actual or potential expressions of them, then the philosophical problem dissolves away…

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