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Wittgenstein and Zen

  • John V. Canfield (a1)

Wittgenstein's later philosophy and the doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism integral to Zen coincide in a fundamental aspect: for Wittgenstein language has, one might say, a mystical base; and this base is exactly the Buddhist ideal of acting with a mind empty of thought. My aim is to establish and explore this phenomenon. The result should be both a deeper understanding of Wittgenstein and the removal of a philosophical objection to Zen that has troubled some people.

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1 From Zen Poems of China and Japan, trans. Stryk L., Ikemoto T. and Takayama T. (New York, 1973).

2 The word ‘mystical’ is used here, without connotations of the weird or the anti-scientific, to refer to a standard feature of religions standardly classified by scholars as mystical: Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta, Sufism, contemplative Christianity, and so on.

3 Unless one appreciates the Zen aspect of Wittgenstein's views one will not be alive to the tension and conflict of the Philosophical Investigations. In philosophizing one is constantly driven to coalesce reality into the mental—sense data, acts of will, minds (selves), intentions, and so on. When Wittgenstein fights this drive, what is at stake is not merely such an academic sounding question as ‘Are there sense data?’, but a conflict between opposing world views. A view consonant with Zen—that what is, is the Tao—is set against the common world view in which the Tao is imagined to clot at various places: me, you, my thoughts, your thoughts, and so on.

4 References to Zen ‘ideas’ or a Zen ‘world view’ may seem to conflict with the notion that Zen is a teaching ‘beyond doctrine’—a direct transmission from mind to mind of Buddha's dharma. But Zen is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, and the teaching of the Mahayana sutras are, in some sense of ‘maintained’, maintained by Zen. (See, e.g. Conze Edward's introduction, pp. 8ff., to Suzuki D. T.'s On Indian Mahayana Buddhism (New York, 1968.) The doctrines of Zen referred to here are ones that Zen obviously subscribes to, and ones about which there should be no scholarly contention. My main source for such ascriptions, in addition to translations of Zen and Mahayana sources, is derived from study with the well-known Zen Master, the Venerable Philip Kapleau.

5 Chisholm Roderick, ‘Intentionality and the Mental’ in Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, eds. Feigl H., Scriven M., and Maxwell G. (Minneapolis, 1958), p. 524. This article consists of an exchange of letters between Chisholm and W. Sellars. Chisholm is presenting a metaphor introduced by John Hospers.

6 But see Wittgenstein, The Philosophical Investigations, ed. and trans. Anscombe G. E. M. (New York, 1953), §§ 410ff.

7 Including linguistics. See, e.g., J. J. Katz: ‘The ability of speakers to transmit their thoughts and ideas to one another through the vehicle of articulated speech sounds presupposes that each speaker has mastered a common system of rules within which each well-formed utterance receives a fixed semantic interpretation’ (italics added). ‘The Philosophical Relevance of Linguistic Theory’ reprinted in Searle J. R., ed., The Philosophy of Language (Oxford, 1971), p. 104. The common fantasy that is here elevated into a linguistic ‘theory’ is met in a mother's notion that her baby struggles and finally succeeds in giving expression in language to its thoughts. The same idea recurs in the commonly held view that dogs talk to one another in dog language, carrying on an exchange of dog ideas.

8 Here and throughout ‘understanding’ means the ordinary understanding of speech and writing, and not ‘the understanding of ultimate reality’ or ‘the understanding of one's True Nature’. Buddhism does also postulate the latter kind of understanding, but since it does not require ‘thought’, as ordinarily understood, there is no conflict with the metaphysical picture presented above.

9 Trans. Edward Gonze.

10 The same point is implicit in these remarks of Po Huang: ‘To make use of your minds to think conceptually is to leave the substance and attach yourself to form. The Ever-Existent Buddha is not a Buddha of form or attachment.’ The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, trans. Blofeld John (New York, 1958), p. 30.

11 The following discussion collates and presents Wittgenstein's views as given in The Blue and Brown Books (BB) (Oxford, 1958) and the Investigations (PI). The points made here are Wittgenstein's. See especially PI, §§ 86ff., 140, 141ff., and BB, pp. 14ff.

12 A position of the kind in question has been stated clearly in a recent book by Bernard Harrison (although he himself does not defend the view):

… Language is a system of noises arbitrarily assigned to stand as token substitutes for images. The whole point of tokens is that they can be used in the absence of the currency that they represent: thus, as we become more facile in using words, the laborious passage from image to image and from image to words tends in both discourse and thought to become telescoped so that we pass directly from word to word. This does not mean, however, that language is independent of imagery, for if we never cashed our words against images we would never come to use them in uncashed ‘purely verbal’ thinking and talking.

13 Cf. PI, §239.

14 ‘Men agree in the language they use. This is not agreement in opinions, but in form of life.’

15 PI, § 219. See also § 292: ‘Don't always think that you read off what you say from the facts; that you portray these in words according to rules. For even so you would have to apply the rule in the particular case without guidance.’

16 Other philosophers have at least come close to equating ‘practice’ with ‘just doing’; e.g. Hunter John in ‘Forms of Life in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 5, 1968; or Kenny Anthony in the following passage: ‘Wittgenstein repeatedly insists that charts, signposts and the like could never be used as we use them if there were not a natural, primitive, uniform reaction that human beings display towards such things, given certain training’ (Wittgenstein (London, 1973), p. 173). But, as far as I know, they have not taken the further step of equating such ‘natural … reaction’ with ‘just doing’; to take this further step (a seemingly inevitable one) is to think of language as an expression of the Tao—and thus to view Wittgenstein's view of language is to see his philosophy in an entirely new way.

17 Trans, and ed. Luk Charles (Berkeley, 1972), p. 95.

18 ‘Just doing’ has been said to be acting with a mind totally free of thought, or as action that is not mediated by thoughts. What, in turn, does this mean? The definition presupposes a primitive picture of a thought as something present to consciousness. Now if this idea of a thought itself turns out to be unintelligible (‘hidden nonsense’), then does ‘just doing’ inherit this unintelligibility? If P is nonsense, then so too is not-P. But one can grant that P is nonsense, and grant the intelligibility of: ‘It is not the case that P.’ The operator ‘it is not the case that’ is then true just in case the proposition or pseudo-proposition that follows it is either false or nonsense.

19 Kapleau Philip (Boston, 1965), pp. 231, 232.

20 The idea of activity-sans-thought that is yet intelligent and creative is developed strikingly in Kleist's story ‘The Puppet Theatre’.

21 This treatment of the ‘automaton-like’ objection is familiar from the writings of Ryle, whose work has certain surface similarities to Wittgenstein's. In the light of critical philosophical reaction to Ryle (e.g. see Sibley F. N., ‘Ryle and Thinking’ in Wood O. P. and Pitcher G., eds., Ryle (New York, 1970)) the above discussion may appear unfruitful. But much has had to be sacrificed for the sake of scope. The aim here is to present an overall view that will prove itself in a deeper understanding of Wittgenstein, and thus in a deeper understanding of the correct philosophical approach to the very questions of detail passed over above.

22 See PI, §§ 198, 199: ‘… I have further indicated that a person goes by a sign-post only in so far as there exists a regular use of sign-posts, a custom.’ ‘To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions).’ This point is central to Wittgenstein's anthropological view of human language. See also the Zen sounding quote, PI, 25: ‘… Commanding, questioning, recounting, chatting, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.’

23 Here arises the question: what do these language games have in common in virtue of which they count as language games; what is the mark in virtue of which something belongs to language? Wittgenstein's well-known answer is to compare the open-ended class of language games with the open-ended class of games. In the same way as games, language games bear a family resemblance to one another; there are no common features in virtue of which something belongs to language. Cf. PI, §§ 65, 66, 67ff.

24 Zettel, trans. Anscombe G. E. M., eds. Anscombe G. E. M. and von Wright G. H. (Berkeley, 1967), § 568.

25 Wittgenstein makes this point in the important passage PI, 208.

26 PI, § 23. This list well illustrates the great heterogeneity of language games.

27 See PI, §§ 130, 131.

28 PI, § 2. Anthony Kenny answers succinctly an objection that has been raised here, namely that the builder's language game is too simple to be called a language: ‘It does not greatly matter [Wittgenstein] might say, whether the builder's game is rightly called a language: it has similarities with language, and there is no clear break between these primitive games and the more complicated ones; the more complicated ones can be built up from the primitive ones by the gradual addition of new forms’ (Kenny, op. cit., p. 170).

29 Perhaps this language game is too simple to be called ‘estensive definition’, e.g. the learners do not have mastery of the language game of asking ‘what is that called?’ But what the language game in question is called doesn't matter in the present context. Cf. PI, §§ 6ff. for Wittgenstein's discussion of estensive definition, or ‘estensive teaching’ as he prefers to call it.

30 PI, § 6.

31 See Kenny's (op. cit., p. 162) translation of an important passage from Wittgenstein's Philosophische Grammatik. See especially PI, § 31d: ‘… The shape of the chessman corresponds here to the sound or shape of a word.’

32 PI, § 1.

33 PI § 27.

34 Trans. Watson Burton, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu (New York, 1968).

35 Ryozan, 10c. Trans, in Zen Poems of China and Japan.

36 Compare Updike John in his story ‘The Sea's Green Sameness’: Here am I, a writer, and there is the sea, a subject. For mathematical purity, let us exclude everything else—the sky, the clouds, the sand on my elbows, the threat of my children coming down the beach to join me. Let us posit a world of two halves: the ego and the external object. I think it is a fair representation of the world, a kind of biform Parliament, where two members sit, and speak for all parties. Museums and Women.

37 Seiken, trans, in Zen Poems of China and Japan.

38 The Three Pillars of Zen, p. 228.

39 See especially Wittgenstein's ‘A Lecture on Ethics’ and F. Waismann's ‘Notes on Talks with Wittgenstein’ both in The Philosophical Review, LXXIV, 01 1965, 1. See also McGuinness B. F.'s excellent discussion ‘The Mysticism of the Tractates’, Philosophical Review, LXXV, 07 1966, 3. It is interesting, in the context of discussing Wittgenstein and Zen, that Wittgenstein is reported to have had a spontaneous mystical experience upon hearing a passage in a play, which passage contained these words: ‘Du g'hörst zu dem all'n und dös all' g'hört zu dir.’ (McGuinness translates this as: ‘You are part of everything and everything is part of you.’) See McGuinness, loc. cit., pp. 327, 328.

40 Wittgenstein's work is helpful in enabling one to see the falseness of the superficial view that all so-called mystical religions are identical. For these religions themselves are to be viewed as forms of life, and to appreciate them one must see the details of the forms of life. These details vary markedly among the religions classed as mystical. In the case of Zen in particular one must look at Zen training, and appreciate, e.g., the intensity with which this training is carried on after ‘awakening’.

41 ‘Informs’ of course is the operative word; certainly not ‘implies’.

42 Quoted (and translated) in Janik A. and Toulmin S., Wittgenstein's Vienna (New York, 1973), p. 192.

43 Waismann F., Ludwig Wittgenstein und der Wiener Kreis, ed. Mc-Guinness B. F. (Oxford, 1963). Quoted and translated in Janik and Toulmin, op cit., pp. 233–34.

44 I am grateful to these friends for helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper, or for discussions of Wittgenstein that have helped me understand some of the things discussed herein: William DeAngelis, Miodrag Cvitkovic, Bruce Goldberg, Hans Herzberger, John Hunter, Charlene McDermott, Ed Pincus, Ron Rower, Sydney Shoemaker, and Richard Taylor. I am especially grateful to Roshi Philip Kapleau; he encouraged the writing of this paper, and what is correct about Zen in it is a reflection of his teaching.

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