Wittgenstein’s Ladder: Philosophy as a Kind of Therapy

In Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, he ends with the following:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

   He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

I am not an expert on Wittgenstein, although I read him–and quite a bit about him–in graduate school. The Tractatus is Early Wittgenstein; whereas Philosophical Investigations is Later Wittgenstein. Between these two works, Wittgenstein took a break from philosophy, having climbed the ladder and thrown it away.

Philosophy has long been hearlded by many philosophers as a way to solve things that trouble us. In a way, a philosopher, on this way of thinking, is a soul healer. This view goes back to Ancient Greece, when some philosophers thought they could help the souls of people.

Was Wittgenstein doing a sort of self-therapy? Is the Tractatus a work of personal growth and adjustment?

It may well be.

On the view of philosophy we are thinking about, philosophers, too, can be perplexed. They may turn to philosophers before them–those lovers of wisdom–in order to “see the world aright.”

These days, we have psychiatrists and therapists. However, there are places in philosophy we can also turn for help. That’s not to say to give up medications and counseling. It’s to say that there have been extremely wise people before us in philosophy whose work may assist us in addition to the modern treatments we have these days.

Wittgenstein didn’t give up philosophy forever, although, when he wrote the Tractatus, he may have thought he was completely done.

I want to suggest that, if the Tractus is a work of self-help, it was extraordinarily brave. Making the movement toward growth, healing and personal development takes courage. To put one’s thoughts out there when one is vulnerable this way is also brave.

Sometimes, philosophy is exactly the place to turn for our problems. We might, after we have reached our conclusion, leave philosophy forever. Or we might, like Wittgenstein, come back to it at a later date, perhaps with fresh new ideas.

If Wittgenstein’s task was self-healing, that, I suggest, is perhaps one of the most important tasks we can ever do. On my view, mental illness can be a complex working of environment, biology, socio-economic class, and personal psychology. This is generally known as the Bio-Psycho-Social Model. (I was trained on this model when I worked briefly as a mental health case manager.) On this view, one of the things that has gone awry in a person with mental illness is cognition. These are mistakes or errors in thinking. In order to, as Wittgenstein says, “see the world aright,” we may go to counseling–or even, sometimes, turn to philosophy.

Once one sees the world aright, one has the ability to flourish, which, on my view, is the telos of human life. One can make sound and good judgements, make appropriate choices, and exercise virtues. So, Wittgenstein’s task, on the view I am putting forward, was basically the most important task a person can accomplish.

Philosophy–in conjunction with modern treatments–may help with mental health issues. Wittgenstein may indeed show us that. Once we have climbed up the ladder and see the world aright, we may be done with philosophy or we may eventually come back to it.

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