An End to Anxiety

Barry Stroud

  • Wittgenstein by A.J. Ayer
    Weidenfeld, 155 pp, £14.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 297 78612 1
  • The Legacy of Wittgenstein by Anthony Kenny
    Blackwell, 150 pp, £12.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 631 13705 X
  • Wittgenstein on Meaning by Colin McGinn
    Blackwell, 202 pp, £12.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 631 13764 5
  • Understanding Wittgenstein: Studies of ‘Philosophical Investigations’ by J.M.F. Hunter
    Edinburgh, 248 pp, £20.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 85224 497 5

Wittgenstein predicted that his work would not be properly understood and appreciated. He said it was written in a different spirit from that of the main stream of European and American civilisation, which he found alien and uncongenial. He expressed indifference to what he saw as his fate in such a culture. How has it turned out so far? How much of what goes on in philosophy today is the result of a serious response to Wittgenstein? The question is more difficult than it looks, and not just because of its size. He is a major philosopher of this century, but on the whole the significance of his work as he conceived of it has not really been acknowledged and absorbed by the philosophy of our day. His influence, however great, has been indirect. It has usually led others in directions precisely opposite to the spirit of his own teaching.

He had a direct and devastating effect as a young man on Russell at the height of his powers around 1912. But Russell’s generous introduction to the English edition of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) so incensed Wittgenstein by its lack of comprehension that he could scarcely be persuaded to allow it to appear. That book had its greatest impact on Vienna, the most creative centre of philosophy in the Twenties and early Thirties: but what they got from it is what made logical positivism possible. From his return to philosophy in 1929 until his death in 1951 he published virtually nothing. The effects of his intense work during that whole period were filtered through the reports of a few pupils, the unauthorised circulation of some notes and lectures, and whatever tidbits could be picked up about what was going on in Cambridge.

With the appearance of Philosophical Investigations in 1953 the philosophical world could begin to see for itself. For the most part, it saw what it was already prepared to see. By then Oxford was the centre of British philosophy and was dominated by the philosophy of mind. Accordingly, Wittgenstein’s doctrines on the philosophical issues of the day were extracted from his strangely unsystematic text, a novel ‘Wittgensteinian’ solution to the epistemological problem of other minds was identified and elaborated, and famous theses about the relation between the ‘inner’ or ‘private’ and the ‘outer’ or ‘public’ were much discussed. The subsequent publication of a dozen more volumes of his writings has scarcely altered the way he is read: they simply reveal what are thought to be his views on a wider variety of topics.

Most responses to Wittgenstein have not acknowledged that his philosophy represents as radical a break with the past as he thought it did. They have simply placed what they take to be his doctrines alongside other philosophical theories of the tradition. In particular, they have overlooked or dismissed his concern with the very possibility of a philosophical doctrine or theory. Both the Tractatus and the later writings aspire in different ways to an idea of philosophy that does not consist of a set of doctrines or truths at all. Conditions for the intelligibility and philosophical efficacy of such pronouncements cannot be fulfilled. Forms of words that might seem to express illuminating philosophical discoveries are shown either to state only familiar mundane truths (or falsehoods) that explain nothing, or to say nothing at all. This point about philosophy is not itself to be proved once and for all by abstract argument: it is to be exhibited and made concrete in the very attempt to gain the kind of understanding traditionally sought in philosophy. That does not mean that there is no such thing as philosophy. It means only that whatever philosophy might be, it cannot be the discovery and propounding of philosophical doctrines or theories. That central idea of Wittgenstein’s has not really had a run for its money in this century, either in the interpretation of his work or in philosophy at large.

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