Thought Without a Thinker: Wittgenstein and No-Agent Thinking

In the Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein writes that “there is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas” (T. 5.631). In this passage, Wittgenstein aligns himself against the “transcendental ego” of Descartes and Kant and closer to Russell and the Buddha.

As H.L. Finch writes on the subject in Wittgenstein, “thinking takes place, but it is not “done” by an agent, or a private locked-away metaphysical self. It is part of the factual world (…) or it is an illusion. Wittgenstein’s no-agent conception of thi8nking leaves us not with Descartes’ Cogito Ergo Sum, I think therefore I am, but with Thinking takes place, therefore I am not” (Finch 25).

In this passage from the Tractacus, Wittgenstein dovetails with Russell who, in the Problems of Philosophy, comments that the mere fact that we observe thinking taking place does not prove the existence of a thinker. From the presence of thinking, we cannot conclude that “I am,” but that “there are thoughts” or that “thinking is taking place.”

This idea of thought-without-thinker is a central insight of the Zen tradition and Hindu Advaita Vedanta traditions as well, where the “I” that seems to be the subject of thinking is revealed to be itself just another thought pattern in the stream of awareness.  In Wittgenstein’s vision, as in Zen’s vision and that of some schools of modern psychology, there is no thinking subject driving thought; there are simply thoughts rising and subsiding according to the conditioning of the psycho-biological organism.  Stated metaphorically, the train is moving, but the engineer is absent; the house is functioning, but there is no one home.

***

Reading these words, my friend Abdulaziz al-Awadhi asked how I would relate Wittgenstein’s words from the Tractacus to “Aristotle, who was the first to say that “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” My response was that what Wittgenstein is attacking here is the existence of a transcendental ego behind the reasoning processes, a kind of master of puppets pulling the strings of thought. Instead, he conceives philosophical reasoning and the ability to “entertain an idea” in the Aristotelian sense as habits that the body-mind learns and puts into practice.

This is my own perspective on the matter as well; just as shallow thinking is a habit that we acquire through experience, so is analytical thinking. The ability to entertain an idea without believing it is another such habit. Russell does not deny that the thinking process takes place somewhere, namely, in a mind, but he does deny–and I think, with good reason–that there is a Kantian transcendental ego orchestrating all of the thinking. The machine of thought is rolling on, but there is no ghost within it.

In the Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein writes that “there is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas” (T. 5.631). In this passage, Wittgenstein aligns himself against the “transcendental ego” of Descartes and Kant and closer to Russell and the Buddha.
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