When Wittgenstein talks of “the problem of life” (TLP 6.52, and later in 1930, CV 6), or when he talks in 1937 of “the problem you see in life” (CV 37), and again when he talks in 1948 of “the problems of life” (CV 84), it seems he primarily has the first, negative, use of ‘problem’ in mind. The question is whether he also has the second: Does he want to say that life is not something to take an interest in, or that there is some difficulty therein?
Unappealing as this might sound, there is a reason for ascribing such a view to Wittgenstein: Talk of taking an interest in life doesn’t seem to mean anything clear—except perhaps in some figurative sense; for life is not another thing in life. Interest in life as a whole is at the very least a very different kind of interest than an interest in things in life, say, a career path, or a family, or a candy. Interest in the whole seems to have no frame of reference—no possible frame. So the idea is that the very notion that we can take an interest in life as a whole if taken too seriously may be taken to show a kind of logical confusion—a kind of problem in the first sense of the term.
Another related reason for ascribing that view to Wittgenstein, namely that life is not something to take an interest in, is his idea that the problems of philosophy and the problems of ethics are formally similar—at least in the kind of solution they require: Both kinds of problems according to Wittgenstein—early and late—are not so much to be solved, as dissolved. When solved, they simply disappear as if never existed; and the way to get there is not by way of learning something new, but by clarifying what we already know. So the idea is that there is thus no room for an interest in life, as there is no room for an interest in metaphysics.
A problem with that view—the view that life is not something to take an interest in, whether it was Wittgenstein’s or not—is that it doesn’t take note of an important difference between the problems of philosophy and the problems of ethics. Despite the important similarities between them, when it comes to ethics, the fact that the realization that this attitude we take towards life as a whole is very different from other kinds of attitude does not have a tendency to diminish our inclination to take such an attitude--to take an interest in life; and similarly with the realization that this attitude can only be spoken of figuratively. Logical-grammatical clarity here doesn’t obliterate the inclination, or the sense that it is actually important to be interested in life. And in this ethics is different from metaphysics: Unlike metaphysics, ethical running against the boundaries of language (here in the form of taking an intrest in life) has a tendency to retain its respectfulness even after grammatical clarity has been achieved. Metaphysics on the other hand simply vanishes. (I learned this distinction from Cora Diamond’s “Ethics, Imagination and the Method of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus,” especially p. 165.) Arguably, Wittgenstein expresses such insight when he says, concluding the Lecture on Ethics:
- Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.
Despite their similarity, therefore, ethical problems are unlike philosophical problems.
One question that remains: Would this leave room for saying, with Wittgenstein, that the solution to the problems of life are in their dissolution? Would the idea that we keep wanting to talk of an interest in life even after we have realized it is so very different, logically different qua ‘interest,’ from other kinds of interest, and even after we are clear that there might not be room for it to have the logic, the grammar, of ‘interest’ in the first place—would this idea square with talk of the vanishing of the problems? Can the language of something remaining be reconciled with the language of disappearing?
I think so; the dissolution of ethical problems would just not be exactly what it is for philosophical problems. My suggestion then is this: in solving philosophical problems we typically give up on an imagined point of view. The (dis)solution is achieved by a return to the ordinary. So far the suggestion is in line with the alternative view discussed above. However, in contrast to that view above, the suggestion I’m making now is that in (dis)solving moral problems we don’t simply return to the ordinary. The inclination to take that attitude towards the whole from the point of view of eternity remains; but it changes. The (dis)solution is achieved by a change of attitude, rather than by the disappearance of the illusion of an attitude. So, for example, an unhappy attitude may give way to a happy attitude—one attitude to life as a whole which sees life as something broken and wretched is thereby replaced by another loving attitude (all the while understanding itself as an attitude to life as a whole, and accepting the logical strangeness involved). It is still an attitude towards life as a whole—it is still a kind of running against the boundaries of language. But from this new perspective, which logically speaking is still very strange qua perspective, the problems that come with unhappiness disappear.
I’m inclined to think of it this way: the dissolution of the problems of philosophy is formally similar to the dissolution of the problems of ethics, not because they are the same kinds of problems, but because, or to the extent that, the former is a metaphor for the latter.