Doing Philosophy and Doing Zen
By Charles S. Hardwick

Philosophy East and West
Vol. 13, No. 2 (April 1963)
pp. 227-234

Copyright 1971 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA



p. 227

    AN INTERESTING CHARACTERISTIC of the method Wittgenstein employs in his later work is the use of queer statements such as: Can a machine have a toothache!", "What is the color of the number three?" and "How can you hang a thief who doesn't exist?" These questions are calculated to produce a sort of "shock" effect on our thinking, and they are used to bring us to see that questions like "What is the meaning of a word?" also may be queer if we properly examine them in the light of the intricate variety of meanings evident in our ordinary use of language. The aim of the method is, by the use of intentional nonsense, to bring one to see the sense underlying the method.

    The problem is here cast in terms of sense and nonsense for a special reason. The sort of statements and indeed the very method characteristic of Wittgenstein's later period present a striking similarity to a method of philosophy which would ordinarily be considered too foreign to Wittgenstein's to warrant serious comparison. Reference is made, of course, to the methods employed by Zen Buddhists in the instruction of their disciples.

    In this paper some of the similarities between these two methods of philosophy will be pointed out. This is not to suggest, of course, that the comparison between the two goes any deeper than similarity of method.

    Zen is characteristically anti-intellectual and a-systematic in its approach to life and the world. To understand this approach, it is essential to consider reality in terms of ineffability. Error, confusion, pain, suffering, anxiety, and perplexity stem from our effort to cut distinctions out of the ineffable reality. Perhaps the best way to describe this effort is with reference to the Hindu term "maayaa." Maayaa "the illusion superimposed upon reality as an effect of ignorance." [1] And, in one case, the whole visible cosmos is described as maayaa, constituting nothing more than an "illusion superimposed upon true being by man's deceitful senses and unilluminated mind." [2] The rational dis- tinctions we make represent a net we cast over the ineffable in our effort to get at the truth. But the truth is that concepts are not things, and all such

1. Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India, Joseph Campbell, ed. (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1961), p. 19.

2. Ibid., p. 19.



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distinctions are false. The more we try to get at reality by multiplying out concepts, the more we become entangled in our own net.

    The greatest error comes, however, when we begin to consider our concepts as being real in themselves, or when we assume that for every concept there is a thing which corresponds to it. Such a view leads to a false dualism, of which the ultimate expression is the subject-object split we make between ourselves and the world about us. This form of dualism also finds expression in conventional dualistic notions, such as body-soul, idea-thing, mind-matter; etc. These conventional dichotomies, enjoying the force of convention, over-shadow our will to discover the truth. D. T. Suzuki indicates the predicament of dualism in the following way:

We believe in dualism chiefly because of our traditional training. Whether ideas really correspond to facts is another matter requiring a special investigation. Ordinarily we do not inquire into the matter, we just accept what is instilled into our minds; for to accept is more convenient and practical, and life is to a certain extent though not in reality, made thereby easier. [3]

    If ideas and concepts, or, for that matter, any aspect of the intellect, are by their very nature false and erroneous, then any effort to convey ultimate truth about the world or ultimate reality by means of concepts is obviously bound to fail. If we are to get at the truth, we must employ a technique not bound to the intellect, and one which is able to go beyond the inherent limitation of the whole conceptual scheme. The method, whatever form takes, must be a radical departure from any conventional mode of thought.

    The techniques of Zen attempt to accomplish such an overcoming. The aim of the method is not to construct a body of intelligible concepts; it is specifically devised to avoid such a procedure.

    It would be erroneous to characterize Wittgenstein's position as anti-intellectual or a-systematic in the same sense that these terms are applied to Zen. For Wittgenstein, the problem of method is equally complex, but follows from a distinctly different line of development.

    Wittgenstein's later work is a reaction to the early view he developed under the influence of Russell and which culminated with the publication of the Tractatus. The essential doctrines of his early view may be summarized as follows: [4]

... first, that language is essentially used for one purpose, the seating of facts; second that sentences essentially get their meanings in one way, namely through "Picturing"; and third, that any language essentially has, though it may be hard to see it, the clear and firm structure of the formulae in a logical calculus.

3. D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism, William Barrett, ed. (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1956), p. 112.

4. G. J. Warnock, English Philosophy Since 1900 (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 67.



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The conclusion of his early view is expressed in the now famous statement, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

    Wittgenstein rejected all three of these views in his later work. He realized that he had driven himself (and perhaps a great many of his ardent followers) into a blind alley. His effort to recover from the perplexity brought about by the consequences of his own views resulted in the development of his radical new method of philosophy.

    Why had he been led up a blind alley! What led him to develop such an untenable view? The answer came to him when he realized that he had been "bewitched" by language itself. In his rigorous effort to deal with problems of language, logic, and reality, he had bent, distorted, and forced language into functions for which it was inherently unsuitable. In short, he came to realize that

...language is not--not even "essentially" or in some covert way -- as he himself and others had once represented it. There is no one pattern to be revealed, no single account to be offered, no small set of definite rules. On the contrary, the forms and uses of language are inexhaustibly flexible and various; a language is not like a game, but like a whole family of games, and the rules for, the purposes of, the ways of playing these games are themselves endlessly diverse. [5]

This discovery led him to the view that "The application (every application) of every word is arbitrary." [6] In one sense, this discovery "freed" language and tended to render the traditional approach to philosophy topsy-turvy. Since the uses of language are "flexible and various," it is fruitless to search for the meaning of a word, and from this follows Wittgenstein's famous statement, "The meaning of a word is its use." [6a] This discovery also placed on Wittgenstein a rather severe limitation. The problem is clear. If the application of every word is arbitrary, how can this truth about language be communicated intelligibly? Certainly not by any conventional use of language, because bewitchment and superstition are always lurking to trap us. To convey the significance of his own insight, Wittgenstein had to resort to an unconventional method.

    Basic to both of these methods of philosophy, then, is some form of limitation rendering the communication of the central idea of each view seemingly impossible. In the case of Zen, the limitation is inherent in the intellect itself. There is a tendency to distort "true" reality by false distinctions. And, in the case of Wittgenstein, the limitation is in language. Language is essentially diverse in its application; so diverse, in fact, that we are

5. Ibid., p. 72.

6. John Wisdom, "VIII.--Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1934-1937," Mind, LXI, No. 242, (April, 1952), 259.

6a. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, G. E. M. Anscombe, trans. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1953), p. 200.



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readily misled in our effort to solve philosophical problems by assuming that words have definite meanings and problems have definite solutions.

    Consider this example taken from Suzuki's "Practical Methods of Zen Instruction":

... Joshu [Chao-chou, Chinese, a famous Zen master] was asked..., "One light divides itself into hundreds of thousands of lights; may I ask where this one light originates?" This question... is one of the deepest and most baffling problem of philosophy. But the old master did not waste much time in answering the question, nor did he resort to any wordy discussion. He simply threw off one of his shoes without a remark. [7]

    In trying to make sense out of this, it seems that a baffling problem is met with an even more baffling reaction. Does such a reply make sense at all? "To understand all this," Suzuki tells us, "it is necessary that we should acquire a 'third eye,' as they say, and learn to look at things from a new point of view." [8] The fact is, we cannot make sense out of such a reply, and any effort to do so heightens our perplexity. The intellect is useless in dealing with such a problem. Our trouble is that we think the problem must have an answer and that our failure to discover the answer is due to an inadequate set of concepts. In either case, Joshu's reply seems only to compound our difficulty.

    Behind Joshu's queer reply is the notion that the question and not the answer contains the nonsense. By throwing off his shoe he is communicating the profoundest of all truths. The question is bound to false concepts and tied to a false notion of logic, both of which have nothing to do with true reality. His nonsensical action is geared to the world as it really is, and to truth in its profoundest form. That is to say, the world can be grasped only by direct means. Joshu's reply indicates this truth, unqualified and unmediated by any form of conceptualization. The method makes its appeal to "the faculty of seeing (dar`sana) or knowing (vidyaa) though not in the sense of reasoning out, but in that of intuitively grasping." [9]

    Zen utilizes all the intellectual oddities that tend to stymie our ordinary way of seeing the world. Contradiction, paradox, identity of opposites, and even common, ordinary garden-variety nonsense are all central in the method. But the method itself is only a means to an end. The end to which the method is employed is to bring one to see the world as it really is, to shock one out of the indolence of conventional thought. The moment we "grasp" the truth is the moment when the false distinctions are effaced from

7. Suzuki, op. cit., p. 114.

8. Ibid., p. 114.

9. Ibid., p. 112.



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our minds and we begin to experience the world rather than think about it.

The method of Zen is to baffle, excite, puzzle and exhaust the intellect until it is realized that intellection is only thinking about; it will provoke, irritate and again exhaust the emotions until it is realized that emotion is only feeling about, and then it contrives, when the disciple has been brought to an intellectual and emotional impasse, to bridge the gap between second-hand, conceptual contact with reality, and first-hand experience. [10]

    Wittgenstein's problem is not in the nature of the intellect as such, but in the "bewitching" nature of language. Associated with this problem are a great many superstitions which have persisted about the function of language. His method is appropriately devised to avoid these inherent pitfalls.

    Wittgenstein's faith in his method is clearly shown in the following remark noted by G. E. Moore in his account of Wittgenstein's lectures in 1930-1933:

He [Wittgenstein] went on to say that, though philosophy had now been "reduced to a matter of skill," yet this skill, like other skills is very difficult to acquire. One difficulty was that it required a "sort of thinking" to which we are not accustomed and to which we have not been trained -- a sort of thinking very different from what is required in the sciences. And he said that the required skill could not be acquired merely by hearing lectures: discussion was essential. As regards his own work, he said it did not matter whether his results were true or not: what mattered was that "a method had been found." [11]

    Wittgenstein's method, or the "sort of thinking" he suggests we adopt, deals with what he called the "language-game." By means of these games, it is shown that words are used in diverse ways. Despite this diversity, however, we clearly understand what a particular word means in any special instance of its use. The upshot of the game is to point out that it is impossible to take one instance of the use of any word as the meaning of the word. Consequently, it is meaningless to ask the meaning of a word. Wittgenstein describes this technique in the following way:

What I give is the morphology of the use of an expression. I show that it has kinds of uses of which you had not dreamed. In philosophy one feels forced to look at a concept in a certain way. What I do is to suggest, or even invent, other ways of looking at it. I suggest possibilities of which you had not previously thought. You thought that there was one possibility, or only two at most. But I made you think of others. Furthermore, I made you see that it was absurd to expect the concept to conform to those narrow possibilities. Thus your mental cramp is relieved, and you are free to look

10. Alan W. Watts, The spirit of Zen (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1960), p. 19.

11. G. E. Moore, "Wittgenstein's Lectures in 1930-33," Mind, LXIV, No. 253, (January, 1955), 26.



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around the field of use of the expression and to describe the different kinds of use of it. [12]

    As clear as this statement seems to be, to say that we understand it would be a contradiction. In professing to understand it, we are necessarily assigning definite meanings to at least some of the words in the statement. We cannot assume that the application of every word is arbitrary and make sense out of the statement. Perhaps Wittgenstein made the statement in an unguarded moment, but, even if this is the case, his later works were produced in more rigidly guarded moments, and he attempts in them to avoid such a pitfall.

    Wittgenstein's effort to maintain a sense of discussion in these later works is significant. The Blue and Brown Books are in the form of dictations. The objective is, it seems, to maintain a looseness of subject-matter and a disarming looseness in development. These works are not to be taken as an effort to achieve any sort of systematic presentation. They can best be described as a kind of "verbal lolling."

    O. K. Bouwsma, in his article "The Blue Book," describes the form of the book as follows:

This book, notes, discussions, investigations, dictations, contains no introduction, no conclusion, no chapters, no chapter headings, no helpful title. So at the outset there is no guide, no warning, no preparation, no cautionary remark. Perhaps the students to whom these dictations were dictated were better prepared. I doubt it, however. The author may very well have considered and said that a bump is also education, a bump of the right sort, of course -- bumping one's head, for instance, against such a question as "What is the meaning of a word?" [13]

Bouwsma also tells us that what Wittgenstein says is not so important as what he is doing. Thus, if we come to understand the subject-matter, we misunderstand the author's intention. But, if we understand what he is doing, the "truth" of the method is revealed to us. We can recall Wittgenstein's statement that the results of his own work are irrelevant; it is the method which is important.

    Now, it is possible to see the significance of some of the queer statements we meet in these works. "Do we think with our feet?" "What is the color of the number three?" These statements are devised to produce a "bump." We quickly sense the queerness of these statements. But they are calculated to bring us to see that such statements as "What is the meaning of a word?" are equally queer. Our failure to see this in the first place is simply because

12. Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein, A Memoir (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 50.

13. O. K. Bouwsma, "The Blue Rook," The Journal of Philosophy, LVIII, No. 6, (March, 1961), 143.



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we assume that a statement such as "What is the meaning of a word?" does make sense. Herein lies the real nonsense. We have been bewitched by our language, and we need a "bump" to bring us around to seeing our error.

    Wittgenstein's method, similar to the method of Zen, is devised to lead one to a "direct grasping." But, in Wittgenstein, what is grasped is not "reality," but the "real nature" of language. The method is an aid in helping us to overcome the inadequacies of conventional ways of looking at our language. The object of the method is

to assist some individual, always an individual, to help him discover what misleads and has misled him. And what misled him is to be seen only when he is no longer misled. When he says: "Now, I see" and breathes a sigh of relief, even though it may be a bit sheepishly, that is the moment to which the art is directed. [14]

    In the case of both Zen and Wittgenstein, to speak of method alone seems to leave out the most important consideration. A method is a means to an end, and it is the end result of each method to which we must now turn our attention.

    Zen method is employed to bring the disciple to enlightenment. What is achieved, if the method is successfully employed, is the direct grasping of ultimate reality. In the moment of enlightenment, there is a sense of release from all that is false and illusory, and consequently the overcoming of all the pain and anxiety brought about by false conceptions. Once one sees the word as it "really is," there is no need for method. To the enlightened, there are no puzzles, no paradoxes, no contradictions, and no more perplexity and anxiety.

    To say that there is a "religious" element in Wittgenstein's later work would certainly be stretching the point, despite the fact that from several reports he sometimes behaved with the uncompromising temperament of a saint. There is, however, a strong therapeutic element in his method, and one definite aim of his method is to bring about a kind of release, if not from the cares of the world, at least from the cares and perplexities of the conventional way of doing philosophy. It does seem somewhat apocalyptic that a method has been discovered which is able to cure a kind of perplexity, rooted deeply in language and associated with philosophical argument, that has persisted for over two thousand years.

A person caught in a philosophical confusion is like a man in a room who wants to get out but doesn't know how. He tries the window but it is too high. He tries the chimney but it is too narrow. And if he would only turn around, he would see that the door has been open all the time. [15]

14. Ibid., p. 153.

15. Malcolm, op. cit., p. 51.



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Even if salvation unto the everlasting is not guaranteed for our souls, at least the dissolution of any and every philosophical problem is an implicit result of the new method of doing philosophy. (On Wisdom's report, Wittgenstein once said that he did not solve philosophical problems; he dissolved them. [16]) There are some philosophers, no doubt, who would find having all their philosophical problems dissolved more satisfying than having their souls saved. There seems, then, to be a strong similarity between Zen and Wittgenstein even on this point. Some form of salvation is the end result of each method. "It is language itself which works to prevent the realization of its own character. To see how this is so is to have defeated the superstition. It is comparable rather with conversion than with the detection of error." [17]

    In this comparison, no attempt has been made to offer any criticism of either method. The attempt has been to focus attention on each method itself and to draw parallels where the similarities are most evident. Both methods attempt to present a profound truth by indirect means. The necessity of indirection is brought about by fundamental limitations which constitute the presuppositions central to each approach.

    It is quite clear that some degree of violence is done to each view by assuming that a certain amount of "talking about" is necessary to describe a process which in final analysis can only be done. Ardent disciples of both views may possibly disclaim any significance to the necessity of "talking about." (The Zen master's standard reply to such presumption is, in some cases, a sound wallop with his staff; and Wittgenstein's answer would no doubt be his characteristically exasperating statement, "Say what you like.") Be that as it may, no real violence is done to either point of view as long as we maintain a tenet fundamental to both: "understanding" is "misunderstanding" and vice versa. As Bouwsma suggests in offering help to readers of The Blue Book: "I can help them to understand it, or at least help them not to misunderstand in certain ways or help them to misunderstand it in a certain preferred way." [18] Or, in Zen:

A monk asked the sixth patriarch of the Zen sect in China,... "Who has attained to the secrets of Wobai (Huang-mei)?" Wobai is the name of the mountain where the fifth patriarch, Hung-jen, used to reside.... The reply of the sixth patriarch was,
"One who understands Buddhism has attained the secrets of Wobai."
"Have you then attained them?"
"No, I have not."
"How is it," asked the monk, "that you have not?"
The answer was, "I do not understand Buddhism." [19]

16. Wisdom, op.cit., p. 259.

17. Warnock, op.cit., p. 78.

18. Bouwsma, op.cit., p. 142.

19. Suzuki, op.cit., pp. 119-120.