Liberating Language in Linji and Wittgenstein
James D. Sellmann & Hans Julius Schneider
Asian Philosophy, Vol. 13, Nos. 2/3, 2003
| ABSTRACT Our aim in this paper is to explicate some unexpected and striking similarities and equally important differences, which have not been discussed in the literature, between Wittgenstein's methodology and the approach of Chinese Chan or Japanese Zen Buddhism. We say 'unexpected' similarities because it is not a common practice, especially in the analytic tradition, to invest very much in comparative philosophy. The peculiarity of this study will be further accentuated in the view of those of the 'old school' who see Wittgenstein as a logical positivist, and Zen as a religious excuse for militarism or sadomasochism. If the second claim were true, the following investigation would not only be futile but also impossible. That the first claim, concerning the 'old school' perspective on Wittgenstein, is incorrect, we will demonstrate in the ensuing discussion. By now more experts have come to accept this claim and we hope that our comparative perspective will add even more momentum.
Our aim in this paper is to explicated some unexpected and striking similarities and equally important differences, which have not been discussed in the literature, between Wittgenstein’s methodology and the approach of Chinese Chan or Japanese Zen Buddhism — for simplicity’s sake we use the more popular Japanese expressions Zen and kōan (ch: gongan). We say unexpected similarities because it is not a common practice, especially in the analytic tradition, to invest very much in comparative philosophy. The peculiarity of this study will be further accentuated in the view of those of the old school who see Wittgenstein as a logical positivist, and Zen as a religious excuse for militarism or sadomasochism. If the second claim were true, the following investigation would not only be futile but also impossible. That the first claim, concerning the old school perspective on Wittgenstein, is incorrect, we will demonstrate in the ensuing discussion. By now more experts have come to accept this claim, and we hope that our comparative perspective will add even more momentum.
[p104] The category-minded reader will naturally want to know which period of Wittgenstein is being compared with which Zen sect. We contrast the author of Philosophical Investigations, and On Certainty, that is, the later and more mature Wittgenstein, withthe contemporary Chinese, Japanese and American Zen Buddhist sect derived from the Tang dynasty master Linji Yixuan (previously Linchi Yi-hsüan, Jp: Rinzai Gigen, d. 866). Let the reader beware, however, because these hard and fast distinctions shall be melted here. We contend that the Wittgensteinian approach examined here is also contained in his early period, and the forthcoming discussion concerning the Rinzai sect’s kōan technique, which developed after Linji’s (Rinzai) death, is not restricted to any particular sect or Zen master. With respect to the early work of Wittgenstein, the reader will recall that in the Tractatus the mystical feeling is described as [t]he feeling of the world as a bounded whole...” (T 6.45).1 A few paragraphs before that, we read a sentence that could easily have been formulated in the Zen tradition: “If by eternity we mean not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then to live eternally is to live in the present”. (T 6.4311). Therefore, we can safely say that the way Wittgenstein intended his readers to see the world was basically the same in his dissertation and in his mature work, but that the ways in which he tried to lead them to the intended point of view were quite different. Our subject matter here will be his method in the later writings.
We are aware of the changes in Wittgenstein’s philosophy. It may look as though a person should only compare Wittgenstein’s early reflections on the mystical with Zen Buddhism. But we claim that his understanding concerning ‘the mystical’ changed only insofar as that in his early philosophy his reaction was to keep silent, to resist the temptation to try to use language for a purpose (as he thought at the time) it cannot handle. Instead he built a house for his sister. Whereas in his later philosophy, he discovered that there are many legitimate ways to use language besides picturing states of affairs. One way he touches on this is seen in the following remark about religion (reported by his students): ‘(The question) “do you believe in the last judgement?” functions differently from “do you believe that what we see up there is a German plane?” ’. This is interesting: we have to understand how it is possible to take the step from the first (ordinary) to the second (religious) usage. This is not our topic, because Zen did not develop a tradition of teachings in this kind of ‘religious language’, the way other Buddhist sects did — we are not referring to prayer and chanting that occurs at Zen temples. Another approach is the one we bring forward, namely, that people can use expressions that are very different from the games played so far (e.g. ‘a fat Wednesday’ see, PI, ii, p. 216). One purpose among the more extreme ways for doing this is to shake people rather forcefully out of their habits, out of what they take for granted. A not so radical step in the same direction, recommended as a recipe especially for philosophers, is to look for the ‘ordinary us’ (instead of only thinking in terms of Descartes or Kant, i.e. staying inside the traditional philosophical language-games without asking for their relation to ‘real life’). Some mistakenly see a conservatism here, as if the ‘ordinary’ could not be wrong. However, sometimes the ‘ordinary use’ also needs to be ‘shaken up’; it depends on the case at hand.
The project shall be to draw out the resemblances and variances in their respective “... use of shock effects...to jar students into seeing things differently...”.2 First, we present a summary of the philosophical methodology of Wittgenstein; as far as it is relevant to this study. We then use some of Wittgenstein’s terminology to clarify the Zen master’s mode of instruction. In conclusion, we shall see how the two approaches complement and conflict with each other.
[p105] Ludwig Wittgenstein was only a single person. Although he was somewhat moody, as far as we can tell, he was not schizophrenic,3 so there is no good reason to speak of two Wittgenstein’s. Each of Wittgenstein’s philosophical works can be seen as an elaboration of his doctoral thesis. With the Tractatus, he believed he had found the decisive solution to all philosophical problems.4 Since Wittgenstein saw philosophy as an activity, he could no sooner finish philosophy than he could finish his life,5 although with respect to his later work he claims to have discovered a method that enabled him to stop his philosophical activity when he pleased (PI 133).6 This might be wishful thinking. As far as his own mental life is concerned; it is quite obvious from his notes and diaries that he suffered very much during the times when he was unable to work, but surely his later works are a refinement of the dissolution of conceptual problems. The pragmatic account of language that can be extracted from the Philosophical Investigations does not contradict the Tractatus, but, rather, it complements the latter. ‘In philosophy the question “Why do we really use that word or that sentence?” always leads to valuable insights’ (T 6.211).7 This linguistic reflection is the key to understanding Wittgenstein’s methodology. He wants to strip away the familiarity of language to uncover “... the prodigious diversity of all the everyday language-games...” (PI II xi 224).8 “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language” (PI 109).9 Through his philosophical investigations, Wittgenstein makes three crucial discoveries that allow for the elaboration of his method. These discoveries are: (i) in most, but not all, cases the meaning of a word or statement is its use (PI 43);10 (ii) the activity of language is tied up with living (T 4.112, PI 23);11 and (iii) there are no absolute and abstract rules of language that distinguish sense from nonsense (PI 80-85). Instead, the relevant non-linguistic practices, into which the linguistic utterances are embedded as their context, have to be taken into account to correctly understand the meaning of an utterance, and there will always be the possibility of new and ‘undecided’ utterances the meanings of which are not determined by established practices (PI 40-43 and 53, and C 477, 501, and 554).12 ‘I shall call the whole consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven, the “language-game” ’ (PI 7).13 Communication can be verbal or non-verbal in both inclusive or exclusive senses. In the language-game of departing a person can say ‘good-bye’, or wave a hand, or do both. Wittgenstein’s philosophical approach is also of this twofold, linguistic and lived, nature. As he remarks, ‘Here the term ‘language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity or form, or form of life’ (PI 23).14 Thus, Wittgenstein dispels philosophical problems, such as the naiveté of Newtonian mechanics, and Kant’s problem concerning the incongruence of the right hand and the left hand, by manipulating the linguistic aspects of these language-games (T 6.341, and 6.63111).15 The ‘problem of life’, on the other hand, he dissolves through living (T 6.521);16 or both approaches can be used simultaneously. ‘What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use’ (PI 116).17 He would take a conceptual perplexity and interject it into a contextual setting (form of life/particular way of living) and see what insight could be gained. Linguistic confusion, whether it be a philosophical problem or a joke, is always profound because it is intimate with one’s life (PI 111).18
In the final analysis, the Wittgensteinian approach can only be used to clear up one’s own confusions. It cannot be used to argue against another unless the arguer can enter the other’s form of life. If someone follows the advice of an oracle rather than a physicist, we have no grounds on which to attack him. ‘If we call this ‘wrong’ are we not using our language-game as a base from which to combat theirs?’ (C 609).19 [p106] Such an attack would be a category confusion of language-games and life styles. So the next appropriate step is an attempt to find some shared forms of life (like eating and drinking) and to go on from there to enlarge the common ground.
In most cultures the word or human sound is of exalted spiritual significance. This significance is commonly expressed through ritual usage, such as chanting. The principal Zen technique, the kōan exercise, appears to have its historical origin in the Indian Mantram.20 ‘In fact, in a certain sense no living religion attaches greater importance to speaking and talking than Zen Buddhism.’21 This does not apply to idle talk, but decisive statements that spring from the depths of one’s nature and disclose one’s development.22 The kōan is often characterised as an intellectual paradox, a riddle or joke that the disciple is given to contemplate, meditate upon, chant, and so on, until it is ‘broken’, entered into, or gone beyond.23 A kōan is an aspect of a mondō, a question and answer type discussion between Zen masters, or a master and a disciple. A kōan may be a segment of a mondō, and both can consist of nothing more than a sound — a yell — such as the various mondō, made kōan, that conclude with a shout such as ‘Wu!’ (Jp: ‘Mu!’). Linji is notorious for the ‘hard training’ he subjected his advanced students to. He often hit or yelled (Ch: he; Jp: kaa) at them when they did not respond appropriately. Linji employed short paradoxical statements or, what we would now call, kōans to jar his students; later Dahui used kōans in meditation.24 That the mondō exercise bears a resemblance to Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophy can be seen in his remark: ‘So in the end when one is doing philosophy one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound. — But such a sound is an expression only as it occurs in a particular language-game, which should now be described’ (PI 216).25 An example from the opening passage of the Linji lu is:
There is no way nor any need to explain or justify that the kōan can be used as, or indeed is, a language-game. For Wittgenstein, it is of little value to explain or justify a language-game just by giving more words, for the crucial thing is to see the language-game as primary; to point out that such and such a language-game is in fact played (PI 654).27 Thus, ‘[t]he question is: “In what sort of context does it occur?” ’ (PI part II, ix).28 We shall discuss how a language-game can be played with the kōan by using Wittgenstein’s three philosophical reminders concerning language: (1) ‘meaning as use’, (2) ‘the form of life’, and (3) ‘the contextuality of rules’.
When a Zen practitioner speaks, she utters words ‘...as it were in limit-situations’.29 The Zen speaker is not concerned with what was said yesterday or what is to be said tomorrow. A person speaks in the lived present, moment as a constant now. Thus, the words of Zen are not of the conventional usage. The words are everyday commonplace words, but they are used to show an unsayable truth about each lived moment, their meaning is that of each fully lived moment that transcends conventional usage. Speech in the Zen context is an unusual situation: (1) the dichotomy of encoder and decoder is relinquished ñ speaking is no longer speech; (2) the distinction of the representation and the represented, or the word and the referent, does not apply; (3) the consequence is that Zen speech is more than a semantic entity; it acts as a way, a path, to the experience of enlightenment called satori.30 The Zen usage synthesises what the discursive mind views as mutually exclusive, eternity in the moment, the absolute in the [p107] moment, the absolute in the particular, or the sacred in the profane.31 As Linji says it would be better not to label them at all.
A form of life for Wittgenstein is not a general ideal, but any liveable style of life that is presupposed by a playable language-game. The life style of the Zen practitioner is an example of a liveable form of life. This form of life is characterised by struggle and harmony. The Zen disciple is constantly on the spiritual battlefield.33 Never allowed to rest, the disciple must struggle mentally and physically with a kōan. The master/disciple relation is analogous to that of the scolding wife and the henpecked husband. The disciple is spiritually ‘battered’ verbally and physically by the master; yet the disciple does not fight the antagonism. The disciple does not succumb to the perplexity of the kōan nor the abuses from the master. With undivided concentration on whateveractivity she performs, the disciple harmonises ‘mind-and-body’ with the existential situation or to use Dōgen’s expression ‘drops the body-mindí, 34 thereby becoming an integral and inseparable component of the situation at hand. The spiritual tension of the Zen lifestyle allows the practitioner to live as a unified whole in harmony with whatever circumstances arise. ‘And this existential transformation is effectuated by means of kōans'. 35 To reference Linji’s teachings again:
For Zen, ‘each kōan in this aspect is a kind of artificially devised means for giving a psychological shock to the disciple'. 37 Their meaning depends on a particular usage in the context of a form of life. Accordingly, as Wittgenstein would say, the ‘rules’ that govern the language-game of the kōan practice are not only of the type we ‘...make up as we go along...’, but are also of the kind that ‘...we alter...as we go along’ (PI 83).38 The rules are contextual. Although the rules for a zen-sesshin are extremely rigid and the kōans themselves have a long tradition of being used, the concrete working with a kōan in each particular case must be of this highly flexible nature in order to effectively stir up the disciple. If any rules for the concrete use of a kōan were firmly established and known in advance, the kōan would lose its shock effect, and would fulfil an empty ritual function only. The concrete personal context of the kōan must be spontaneous and authentic as it pertains to the present occasion. Someone undergoing kōan practice would probably even disagree with this description because it is a generalisation.39 The spontaneity is like that of a well-trained athlete and not that of a child. The master catches the disciple off-guard by reacting to a complex or meaningless question with some paradoxical or irrelevant answer.40 Thus, the disciple is stripped of her explana-[p108]tions and rationalisations, and left alone naked in the wind of lived life — where the spiritual battle of Zen takes place. Linji asked a nun:
The language-game of shock treatment or using language to liberate can be employed in the remedy of ‘conceptual illnesses’ commonly called philosophical problems. In Wittgenstein’s attempt to bring about, as he himself says, a therapeutic dissolution of philosophical problems (PI 133), and in the well-known remark: ‘[t]he philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness’ (PI 255), Wittgenstein not only felt and lived the intensity and perplexity generated, but he also made his students experience the struggle and torment.42 In similar fashion, the Zen master uses kōans to activate and jar the disciple.43 What are the ‘family resemblances’, if any, between these two language-games? Someone could contend that there are no similarities since Wittgenstein and the Zen master come from completely different cultural forms of life — the former from European culture and the latter from Asian cultures. Such a statement would be stacking the deck; we should follow Wittgenstein’s ‘look-and-see’ advice and investigate for ourselves.
As was noted above, they both make use of a shock technique, and this is the first similarity between the two, that is, they use language to jolt their followers out of an uncritical acceptance of conventions that do not fit the respective concrete, individual contextual setting — they use language to shock and thereby to liberate others. In Wittgenstein’s case such conventions are similarities of ways of expression on the ‘surface’ of language that lead the philosopher to a misguided conception about the nature or even the meaningfulness of a philosophical problem. An expression of this kind of ‘shock-therapy’ is his remark: ‘Only by thinking much more crazily even than the philosophers, can you solve their problems.’44 The result he intends is either the dissolution (i.e. the vanishing) of the problem or an understanding of its correct form. In both cases the philosopher has come to see what Wittgenstein calls the ‘depth grammar’ of the relevant language-game (PI 664).
Yet even this contrast is not quite as sharp as it has just been stated. Wittgenstein repeatedly stresses the fact that there is no clear boundary between sense and nonsense on an abstract and purely linguistic level. A characteristic observation is the remark: ‘We have not settled anything about this’(PI 41). It might well be argued that the [p109] absurd ring in the following quotation comes close to what we know from the Zen-kōan : ‘Given the two ideas ‘fat’ and ‘lean’, would you be rather inclined to say that Wednesday was fat and Tuesday lean, or the other way ‘round?’ (PI ii, p. 216). As the context makes clear, Wittgenstein here stresses with regard to language an aspect of freedom, the fact that language is always more than what can be captured by existing conventional rules. The phenomenon of metaphor (in its usual semantic as well as its seldom recognised syntactic form) 48 is an obvious case in point. To understand the way metaphors work is not an additional conceptual achievement, not one more concept on the same level as given concepts, but it is an insight into how conceptual language works,49 and that insight allows a person to transcend given boundaries, to use a word like ‘fat’ to classify the days of the week. In a parallel fashion we can say that the satori experience leads the disciple to see that the world is always more than what can be captured by existing conventional ways of looking at and talking about it. The conventional tracks of experience are what must be broken, what the disciple has to be freed from in Zen. As Linji said:
The next resemblance is in their respective uses of shock treatment as a catalyst or pedagogical device to elicit experiences in their followers. As a pedagogical device, Wittgenstein used the ‘philosophical problem’ on himself and his students.51 ‘He did his utmost to insure that they were thoroughly perplexed by a philosophical problem. They had to actually feel and live it and work their way into and through it.'52 It is important to keep in mind that Wittgenstein’s method is part language analysis and part lived life. A philosophical problem can be dissolved by appealing to the workings of everyday language or to the enjoyment of a lived experience of everyday life. (You stop doing philosophy and go see a movie, PI 133.)53 Likewise, the kōan is used to jolt the novice out of discursive intellect and into an experience of satori. In the midst of this resemblance there is a variation to be noted. For Wittgenstein the effect of the shock treatment carries a definite intellectual facet. Even though the rational aspect is not as immediately functional as the lived side, it still plays a role. Since Zen is concerned with unifying a human being as an interrelated whole, it does not deny people the ability to rationalize. Yet, the intellect has no move to make in the kōan game. The intellect is present, but if someone rationally analyzes a kōan , then he misses the point. For Zen, the momentarily lived experience of life is beyond the limits of the intellect.54
The concretely lived experiences of life are beyond the limits of the intellect, i.e. the limits of language, for Wittgenstein also. The transcendental similarity between Wittgenstein and Zen uncovers a striking dissimilarity between the two. Namely, Wittgenstein uses shock therapy as a philosophical method; whereas Zen uses it as a ‘liberative technique’ — a skilful means, for whoever will try it, to hold in check an excessive emphasis on self-centredness. There is, however, a similarity as to the purpose of using the shock effect. In both cases the shock is administered as a type of vaccination against preoccupations with oneself. That is to say, they both give out a diluted form of, for lack of a better expression, ‘beneficial, temporary psychosis’. Thus, when the student or disciple battles with a particular shock, she or he strengthens [p110] oneself. The student becomes a fuller, more stable human being who is not so easily shaken by the troubles of daily living. The philosophical problem and the kōan can be used to sharpen one’s wits and personality, to ‘improve’ the quality of one’s life without complacency and rationalisations. There is no doubt that Wittgenstein belongs to the philosophical tradition according to which the goal of the philosopher, the lover of wisdom, is more than an intellectual insight. It is a transformation of the philosopher’s personality, as Pierre Hadot has pointed out, according to this ancient understanding, philosophy itself is a ‘way of life’.55 Finally the Buddhist tradition and Linji in particular acknowledge the need for ‘therapeutic treatment’. The teachings act as a type of cure or medicine. In a passage that echoes Wittgenstein, Linji says: ‘I have no Dharma to give to men. I only cure disease and undo knots'.56
From this examination a case can be made for the compatibility of Wittgenstein and Zen. Their differences are not of a mutually exclusive nature. The similarities of the two are of a complementary character. Since the satori experience upon which Zen is based seems to lend itself to anti-philosophy, Zen has no established philosophy in the ordinary sense. Therefore, Wittgenstein’s philosophy proves invaluable in constructing a Zen meta-philosophy — a philosophical potential derived from the Zen experience.57 The Zen approach to life most definitely sheds some light on what Ludwig Wittgenstein was ‘pointing’ at or trying to show through his kōanic or kōan-like use of philosophical problems. Wittgenstein’s analysis provides a way for understanding what the Zen master is doing.
1. WITTGENSTEIN, LUDWIG (1966) Tractatus logico-philosophicus. The German text of Logisch -philosophische Abhandlung, with a new translation by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul), and see KOLAK, DANIEL (trans.) (1998) Wittgenstein's Tractatus (Mountain View, CA, Mayfield), p. 49. We cite the passage number in thetext to assist the international reader in finding the passages. Tractatus will be denoted by ‘Tí, Philosophical Investigations by ‘PIí, and On Certainty by ‘C'.
2. FINCH, HENRY LEROY (1977) Wittgenstein — The Later Philosophy (Atlantic Highlands, NJ, Humanities Press), p. 265.
12. WITTGENSTEIN, op. cit., note 6, pp. 20e and 26e; and WITTGENSTEIN, LUDWIG (1969) On Certainty
, trans. DENIS PAUL & G.E.M. ANSCOMBE (New York, J & J Harper), pp. 62e, 66e, and73e. See, SCHNEIDER, HANS J. (1997) The situatedness of thinking, knowing, and speaking: Wittgenstein and Gendlin, in: DAVID MICHAEL LEVIN (Ed.) Language Beyond Postmodernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin Philosophy (SPEP)
(Evanston, Northwestern University Press), pp. 97 -116.
19. WITTGENSTEIN, op. cit., note 12, p. 80e.
23. SELLMANN, JAMES D. (1985) A pointing finger kills the Buddha: a response to Chung-ying Cheng and John King-Farlow, Journal of Chinese Philosophy, 12(2), 223ñ228.
25. WITTGENSTEIN, op. cit., note 6, p. 93e. This is reminiscent of Ralph Waldo Emersonís statement: ‘Sometimes a scream is better than a thesisí.
31. TOMINAGA, THOMAS T. (1978) Wittgenstein's Tractatus and Buddhist ‘Four-Fold' Logic, in: Wittgenstein and His Impact on Contemporary Thought (Wein, Holder-Pichler-Tempsky), p. 189.
33. IZUTSU, op. cit., note 21, p. 162. The battlefield is an appropriate metaphor not only because of the spiritual battle and the physical struggle between master and disciple, but also Linji uses the image. For example see the opening passage of his record where he challenges the audience ‘... is there some skillful general to deploy his troops...?'. SCHLOEGL, op. cit., note 2, p. 13.
38. WITTGENSTEIN, op. cit., note 6, p. 39e.
43. SCHARFSTEIN, BEN-AMI (1975) Introduction ‘Zen: the tactics of emptiness', in: The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans with Answers, trans. YOUL HOFFMANN (New York, Basic Books), pp. 5-37.
47. WITTGENSTEIN, op. cit., note 1, ‘Introduction', p. 3.
49. We would like to direct the reader's attention to the work of Eugene Gendlin (see note 12, above). For his relation to Wittgenstein see SCHNEIDER, HANS J. (1997) ‘Zwischen den Zeilení: Wittgenstein und Gendlin über die nicht-regelhafte Seite der Sprachkompetenz, Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 45, pp. 415-428.
55. HADOT, PIERRE (1995) Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault
Chung-ying Cheng: On Zen (Ch’an) Language and Zen Paradoxes
Dale S. Wright: Rethinking Transcendence: The Role of Language in Zen Experience