2.17.2002

What we have come to is probably close to the realization that drove Wittgenstein back to philosophy: what we call language possesses no fixed, underlying logical structure, no parameters, no single cause and no single purpose. Our tendency, perhaps as humans, certainly as philosophers, is to try to impose structure, extrapolate fixed word/object relations, and pretend that we have control over what we say and write. When put this way, we are not observing the philosopher's or human's relation to language only; rather we can substitute "world" for "language". The result is frustration: the completeness and eternity achieved in past philosophical systems have proven to be provisional, perfectable, and sources of confusions for generations of future philosophers.

This is what draws me to Wittgenstein and to thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and William James. There is a question that unifies them all. No doubt, I would phrase the question differently tomorrow, but it is something like this: What is it to be human? The respective answers are shaped by the life lived by the philosophers in question. That is, their philosophical works are confessional and lived. They laugh at pretense, celebrate creativity, and mourn the limitations of mortality and vision. Wittgenstein is at times the most clear of these thinkers; at other times he is the most difficult. Some remarks in Culture and Value reveal feet of clay, the reflections on the Tractatus are exemplars of critical self examination (certainly on par with the self-criticism of Plato in Book Eight of the Republic). I tend not to engage in argument with Wittgenstein and this distinguishes my relationship with his work from the reading relationship I have with all other philosophers and theorists. In a sense, I wonder if it is possible to have that kind of critical relationship with his work. Bertrand Russell, Ernest Gellner, Karl Popper, and others have expressed disdain for Wittgenstein, to be sure. Herbert Marcuse accused Wittgenstein of perpetrating a kind of academic sado-masochism on philosophy. But these encounters are exceedingly limited. Indeed, most address the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus and never acknowledge Wittgenstein's own criticisms of the work. Marcuse does go after the later Wittgenstein, but his criticism is restricted to those remarks that present philosophy as a descriptive (as opposed to critical) enterprise.

The confessional quality of the work defies criticism. To somehow oppose the Philosophical Investigations is to embark on an ad hominem attack. To see one remark or set of remarks as characterizing the work as a whole is to take a reductionistic tact that is wholly un-Wittgensteinian. This is troubling because it sounds like the only position left for the reader is passive acceptance. But this is most assuredly not the case. Reading Wittgenstein is hard! Its demands on the reader are mind-boggling. You have to write a text in answer to the reading.

I moved a bit off the mark here, I know. You state that we are misusing the word misuse and that led me to reflect on the feeling of walking on thin ice. You can make mistakes in reading Wittgenstein. Why is it so important to get him right? I cannot give a clear answer, but this is precisely the task I have set for myself -- to get Wittgenstein right. And, no, I am not sure what this means.

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