Let me begin by asking: supposing that we are willing to move backward, what question should we ask about our philosophical questions? What would be useful, helpful?
One sort of questions that might be helpful to ask are questions that would help us to clarify the terms of the original question. I believe that in many cases, philosophical questions originate in unclarity about criteria (I mean what Stanley Cavell calls criteria). That is, roughly, when a philosopher is asking about X, e.g. about the possibility of rule following, all too often, the reason they have that question in the first place is at least partly because they are not clear about the terms of the original question: e.g. what following a rule is (or what comes to the same thing, what rules are). So in philosophy we often find ourselves in the strange but typical (typical for philosophy) situation of asking about X without being clear what X is, and without realizing that we aren’t clear. – A movement backward is called for: questions that would clarify the terms of our original question.
This can be applied to many philosophical discussions. For instance, suppose we are asking about the possibility of altruism. In dealing with this question, the philosophy of moving backward would ask for example: But what is altruism in the first place? What would altruism entail? And what would selfishness entail? How does one know what is in their interest? How does one distinguish between what is in their interest and what is in others’ interest? Is the distinction always clear? Does it always exist even? Can we have interest in complete abstraction from others having interests? In what ways do our interests connect with others’ interest? If a mother protects her son, for example, is she doing it for herself, or for the son? Must there be an either-or here? And is it right to say alternatively that it is both? Or perhaps they are rather like the hand and the mouth, regarding which it would be strange to ask: “When the hand feeds the mouth, does it do it for itself, or for the sake of the mouth?” In this case, we should rather talk of an undividable mother-son interest unit—atom—without notionally separating the interest of the mother from those of the son. Would that be a more adequate description of things? – Questions like these would not answer the original question; they would presumably only help to clarify what we are asking about. They serve as it were a preparatory role: they lay the ground or make sure the ground is laid, for the original question. Without answering them, we don’t quite yet have—are not quite in possession of—our original question. At the same time, answering them might very well change our original question, or even undermine it. As Cavell says, “A formidable criticism of [any serious philosophy] will have to discover and alter its understanding of itself” (CR, 38).
Now, in the previous post, I gave an example of backwards moving philosophy from Wittgenstein:
“How can one follow a rule?” That is what I should like to ask.
But how does it come about that I want to ask that, when after all I find no kind of difficulty in following a rule?
(Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics VI §38)
Wittgenstein here is not asking a question of the backward-moving type I suggested we should ask. Or at least he doesn’t seem to be asking that sort of question. He is not obviously asking about criteria. – Am I being unfaithful to Wittgenstein, then? Or rather, is there more here to learn from Wittgenstein?
I don’t think what I’ve been suggesting is not Wittgensteinian (that is, learnt from Wittgenstein). But I think there is more to learn from him here. Specifically, I think he is going a step beyond what I’ve been suggesting so far, moving further back. That is, I think what I’ve been suggesting so far regarding that unclarity about the criteria is compacted in what he is saying. But as usual with Wittgenstein, there is more that is compacted in what he is saying.
This is what I want to suggest: The question Wittgenstein asks gives us a sense what it would take to answer the sort of questions I proposed we should ask—the questions about the original question. It is in this sense that his is moving further back. So—to take stock—there is (1) the original question; and then there are (2) those questions I mentioned about the question—questions that ask for clarification of the terms of the original question. But now there is (3) a third layer and a further question: ‘What would it take to answer those criteria-questions—to clarify the terms of the original question?’ and I think this is where Wittgenstein’s question lies. That is, he is tentatively suggesting—offering as something he realizes he has been taking for granted, but is now willing to question—that the terms of the original question are clear in the life with those terms; and that presumably if we have a question that requires clarifying those terms, then this is where we should go back.
So, I propose, Wittgenstein is saying something like this:
‘But how is it even possible that I should have this question? If I have this question, this indicates the possibility that I’m unclear about the terms of the question. But how can I be unclear about those terms when in my life with those terms I have no unclarity? Is it that I am now in need for a different sort of clarity—a clarity that is not “in-life” clarity? What would that other sort of clarity be like? ’
Putting us at this distance from our original question does not simply return us to our original question; but in a way it does bring us full circle: It prompts us to attempt to recast our question, but this time in full view of the philosophical stance from which we ask it. It keeps us sensitive, with an ear to the kind of clarity we seek. Lest we end up without noticing with an answer, but of the wrong type. And to a large extent this was indeed the purpose of all this backward moving: to allow us to see where and with what needs we are asking, to allow for a philosophy that recognizes itself for what it is.