Wittgenstein and the genteel tradition

Published in: South African Journal of Philosophy
Volume 38, issue 3, 2019 , pages: 287–296
DOI: 10.1080/02580136.2019.1650219
Author(s): Reza HosseiniDepartment of Philosophy, Politics, and International Studies, South Africa


In his book, Philosophy’s Cool Place, D. Z. Phillips poses a question that I would like to address in this article. He asks: “if a philosopher gives a course on the meaning of life, can he tell his students what that meaning is?” Here I modify the question and ask: if a Wittgensteinian philosopher gives a course on the meaning of life, can she tell her students what that meaning is? The orthodox position among Wittgensteinian philosophers is that it is not a philosopher’s job to engage with such questions, that the focus should be on second-order or “grammatical” questions about life’s meaning. However, I argue that the massive literature on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of religion shows that these so-called grammatical investigations are not entirely grammatical and that more often than not a conception of life’s meaning emerges in these types of investigations. Further, I argue that Wittgenstein’s engagement with what he calls the “problem of life” shows itself in two distinct ways: first, in his private reflections on the nature of religious beliefs; and second, in his steady yet quiet interest in a naturalist account of life’s meaning, culminating in his last text, On Certainty.

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