Was Wittgenstein a Conservative?

Is Wittgenstein’s later philosophy – as epitomized in the Philosophical Investigations (referred to as “PI”) – a philosophy of conservatism? Or, stated less academically and more usefully: Does Wittgenstein’s later philosophy teach anything of value to people who are not inclined toward political conservatism?

I believe that many people assume that Wittgenstein’s work is at best indifferent to political questions and at worst deeply committed to preserving the status quo. For example, Bertrand Russell (a socialist) remarked that Wittgenstein’s appeal to “the ordinary” expresses a bourgeois fear of change. This view finds at least superficial support in remarks such as: “[Philosophy] leaves everything as it is.” PI, § 124. Compare this with Karl Marx’s view (Theses on Feuerbach): “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

It is also true that throughout his life, Wittgenstein exhibited a thoroughly conservative sensibility. Ray Monk’s splendid biography Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius describes a sexually repressed and deeply tormented man, the son of a fabulously wealthy Viennese industrialist, whose deep roots in the traditional values of the Austro-Hungarian empire, even as it was the final stages of dissolution, rendered him all but incapable of comprehending the revolutionary eruptions throughout Europe in the wake of the first world war. But Monk also emphasizes that in the spirit of his compatriot Karl Kraus, Wittgenstein’s apparent cultural conservatism was not so much a way of taking sides in the public debates of his time as it was an expression of a personal need (more accurately, a compulsion) to uphold the integrity of an essentially aristocratic ideal of the nobility of truth under assault by fashionable politicians, self-styled cultural modernists and other opportunists. “If I must choose the lesser of two evils,” Kraus wrote, “I will choose neither.” Politics, according to Kraus (quoted on p. 17 of Monk’s book) “is what a man does in order to conceal what he is and what he himself does not know.”Wittgenstein-investigations

Here is another sentence that seems to confirm Wittgenstein’s fundamental conservatism: “What has to be accepted, the given, is – so one could say – forms of life.” PI, § 226. If we must accept the given, and what is “given” are forms of life, and “forms of life” refers at least superficially to the world as we find it, what hope could there possibly be for changing the world? But “forms of life” (translating “Lebensformen”) is a notoriously obscure phrase in Wittgenstein’s later work, and its meaning cannot be discerned without reference to his specific procedures in the Philosophical Investigations.

One of Wittgenstein’s important procedures, when thinking about the meaning of an expression, is to begin with a question: “Is the word ever actually used this way in the language game which is its original home?” PI, § 116. “Language games” are constructed in order to facilitate the discovery or re-discovery of a path leading our words away from their “metaphysical” uses back to their “original home”, which is found in their ordinary or everyday usage: “What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.” PI, § 116.

Once again, the appeal to ordinary language can appear as a conservative appeal. By bringing words back from their metaphysical to their everyday uses, it looks as if Wittgenstein is defending the way we usually talk, which suggests that he is defending our commonly held beliefs, assumptions and prejudices against unconventional or innovative challenges to those beliefs. According to this interpretation, our ordinary words are “misused” in metaphysical applications, implying that our problems could be solved simply by reforming institutions – for example, by teaching people to strictly apply the rules of grammar and to pay careful attention to the definitions found in dictionaries.

However, this interpretation cannot be correct, because the burden undertaken in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy (in contrast with his earlier philosophy as articulated in the Tractatus) has nothing to do with such a “reform” of language – or indeed with a reform of institutions, society, the world or anything else. Wittgenstein steers the reader away from this view. Although it may appear “as if we saw it as our task to reform language. Such a reform for particular practical purposes, an improvement in our terminology designed to prevent misunderstandings in practice, is perfectly possible. But these are not the cases we have to do with.” PI, § 132.

What then are the cases with which Wittgenstein is concerned in this later work, and what is the significance of the appeal to ordinary language if not to defend our everyday, commonly held beliefs about the world as it stands?

Language on Holiday

The cases that occupy Wittgenstein’s attention are not those in which language is misused, but occasions on which we humans use language in such a way that we fail to communicate matters of humanly significant interest. This happens when, for reasons that remain obscure, we fail to allow our words to do their work: “The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing its work.” PI, § 132. “For philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” PI, § 38. When language “goes on holiday, it is less a problem of words being used wrongly (in relation to the world) but of our failing to use words accurately – accurately to the specifics of our experience and to our specificity as unique selves. And when that happens, we speak in emptiness, as if in a monologue, leaving ourselves isolated and unexpressed.

Elsewhere, Wittgenstein writes: “The problems arising through a misinterpretation of our forms of language have the character of depth. They are deep disquietudes; their roots are as deep in us as the forms of our language and their significance is as great as the importance of our language.” PI, § 111. These deep disquietudes bubble to the surface when, for example, we wish to find a “super-strong connection” between our language and the world, or to establish a “super-order” between “super-concepts”. PI, § 97. This wish appears in the Investigations not as a mistake that might be corrected, but as a constant, enduring and all but irresistible temptation – a temptation to which we for the most part and most of the time submit. When we submit to the temptation, we find ourselves under a spell; in the grip of the spell, we torment ourselves with problems that have no issue: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” PI, § 109.

Here are some examples of the “deep disquietudes” that arise when language goes on holiday:

The discussion concerns the privacy of sensation, specifically pain. We seem to know what the word “pain” means most directly by focusing on what goes on inside us when we are in pain. “’Another person can’t have my pains.’ Which are my pains? … I have seen a person in a discussion on this subject strike himself on the breast and say: ‘But surely another person can’t have THIS pain!’ – The answer to this is that one does not define a criterion of identity by emphatic stressing of the word ‘this’.” PI, § 253.

“’Yes, but there is something there all the same accompanying my cry of pain. And it is on account of that that I utter it. And this something is what is important – and frightful.’ –Only whom are we informing of this? And on what occasion?” PI, § 296.

“’I know how the color green looks to me.’ –surely that makes sense! –Certainly: what use of the proposition are you thinking of?” PI, § 278.

In these examples, the speaker wishes, by imagining (respectively) private definitions of “pain” and of ”green”, to establish a direct and unmediated connection between his words and the world – a connection that exists apart from the speaker’s commitment to making himself intelligible to others. The words are not misused; we know the meaning of each word (per the dictionary) and we recognize their combination in sentences (per the rules of syntax), and yet the desperation with which the sentences are uttered seems to deprive the words of their meaning, in this sense: We cannot see the point of saying them, here and now and in this way. We know what the words mean, but we don’t know what he means in uttering them, a point brought to the fore by Wittgenstein’s questions: “Only whom are we informing of this? And on what occasion?” It is as if the very effort to force our words to touch the world (e.g., the pain itself, the sensation that I feel, my mental image of green, etc.) is exactly what causes the world to withdraw, to slip from our grasp. –If only our words could somehow, in and of their own inherent power without being meant by a specific person in a specific circumstance, incorporate or physically grasp the world – then we would finally be relieved of the terrible responsibility for making ourselves intelligible, thus overcoming our individual isolation, which means: taking on the responsibility for creating and sustaining a social world in which individual lives have importance and significance.

The need to evade responsibility for the world such as it is and can be – this need, which is expressed as much in political and cultural life as in philosophy, is treated as a kind of dementia. “The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.” PI, § 255. Although (as I remarked earlier) Wittgenstein seems not to have appreciated the revolutionary changes that swept the world following the First World War, there is no doubt that Wittgenstein perceived the Western world as in the grip of a collective outburst of madness during the first half of the 20th century, and that he saw himself as writing in radical opposition to the Zeitgeist of modern industrialized Europe, which he refers to in the Preface as “the darkness of this time.” The interest of Wittgenstein’s procedures cannot be grasped unless we acknowledge that the illness he diagnosed is not limited to the ways in which discrete philosophical conundrums are imagined, for example in books and classrooms. “My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.” PI, § 464. The aim and the technique can be generalized because the human wish to live beyond our humanly available means is more or less pervasive in modern life, particularly at a time when advanced digital technology threatens to obliterate personal privacy even as it guarantees the chimera of privacy interpreted as anonymity.

The Appeal to Ordinary Language

The mere fact that, according to Wittgenstein, it is so extraordinarily difficult to return our words to their “original home” shows that the appeal to ordinary language is not a defense of commonly held beliefs. Were that the case, Wittgenstein’s therapeutic procedures would encounter little if any resistance, because we all know, or think we know what we believe and are happy to have our beliefs affirmed. However, in the Philosophical Investigations, the resistance is nearly insurmountable: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” PI, § 115.

The difficulties associated with escaping what captivates us are especially puzzling because Wittgenstein’s procedures for self-liberation do not involve learning anything new. It is not as if “we had to hunt out new facts; it is, rather, of the essence of our investigation that we do not seek to learn anything new by it.” PI, § 89. Accordingly, the appeal to ordinary language is characterized as an appeal to memory, an inducement to remember what we already know. “The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.” PI, § 127. Specifically: “We remind ourselves … of the kind of statement that we make about phenomena.” PI, § 90. How can it be so difficult to remember how we talk? –When what we fail to know is so obvious that we cannot simply fail to know it, it is less a matter of ignorance than a refusal to know, a refusal of self-knowledge.

(I find that in the United States, what is called the “conventional wisdom” as articulated by our politicians, bureaucrats and media experts is structured as if for the precise purpose of reinforcing and solidifying the internal barriers to our self-knowledge, which explains why officially endorsed national narratives are so fraught with appeals to metaphysics; a self-reinforcing tale of transcendent virtue under constant and ever-growing exterior threat from the forces of inherent evil (currently referred to as “terrorism”), the point of which is to relieve ordinary Americans from the responsibilities of critical reflection and accountability for the state of their government and for the state of their own lives. Compare: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being” (Barack Obama, Speech to U.S. Naval Academy, May 28, 2014), with: “Imagine someone saying: ‘But I know how tall I am!’ and laying his hand on top of his head.” PI, § 279. Language is idling.)

In characterizing the kind of self-knowledge that is refused, at least two lessons can be drawn from the appeal to ordinary language in the Philosophical Investigations.

First, the appeal is in principle a radically egalitarian appeal. When we ask ourselves, “When do we say …?” no one’s answer possesses greater authority than any other English speaker’s answer. In posing this question, Wittgenstein’s purpose is not to “prove” anything to the reader, but to call upon us to prove something to ourselves, each of us individually. If there is disagreement, there can be conversation – conversation that does not assume or require the possession of any expertise or credentials beyond one’s willingness to communicate. The “we” referred to in the question envisions a community of speakers capable in principle of conversing on equal terms with an equal right to be heard. Thus, the refusal to know ourselves is a refusal of genuine community.

Second, the answer to the question (“When do we say …?”) reveals not just something about language, but at the same time something about the world. Wittgenstein’s methodological principle is that we find out what kind of object (or action) anything is by recollecting how we talk about that object (or action). If you want to know what intention is, ask yourself how and in what concrete circumstances you use words like “intention”, “intend”, “intentionally”, “unintentional”, etc., and distinguish those from circumstances in which you use related words like “deliberate”, “(in)voluntary”, “purposeful”, “accidental”, “automatic”, and their cognates). There may be other ways of analyzing intentionality, using evidence that is found elsewhere than in one’s self, but those ways are unlikely to be pertinent to philosophy.

More specifically, reminding ourselves of how we talk about phenomena means reminding ourselves of the kind of occasions (where, when and to whom) on which we find it worth talking about the phenomena. And when we recall the occasions on which something is worth saying, where saying it has a point, we discover how we express our interest in the world in any given case. “Ask yourself: On what occasion, for what purpose, do we say this?” § 489. (Re)discovering our own interests provides a way of orienting ourselves in the world: “A philosophical problem has the form: ‘I don’t know my way about’” PI, § 123. We are then in a position to see that our concepts are as they are, and mean what they mean, only to the extent they express humanly shared interests. “Concepts lead us to make investigations; are the expression of our interest, and direct our interest.” PI, § 570. The suggestion is that we, as a community or culture – insofar as we need to be reminded of how we talk – are endlessly engaged in pointless talk about matters that do not concern us, inventing and deploying concepts that serve only to express our disinterest, perhaps better described as our boredom and depression. To describe a society as existing in a state of boredom and depression is to describe a culture of conformity.

This article began by asking whether Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy as “leaving everything as it is” is a view that can appropriately be described as “conservative” in the broadest political sense. But conservatism, like liberalism and their respective variants, is an ideology. Whatever else it may be, an ideology is a vision of the world as it should be, together with a theory that rationally justifies the vision. Wittgenstein’s philosophy does not deal with how things should be, but with how they are. “Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything. –Since everything lies open to view, there is nothing to explain. For what is hidden, for example, is of no interest to us.” PI, § 126. Wittgenstein’s appeal to ordinary language shows that this world – how things are here and now – is our historical fate at any moment – but it is not our inevitable fate, because what we say and therefore what we see and know, being a matter of human commitment and consensus, is in principle subject to change. Thus, it is up to us and no one else to acknowledge our responsibility both for the world as it stands, and for changing it according to an understanding of what it might be.

Remembering how and why we speak to each other when we succeed in communicating means remembering how and why we commit ourselves to what we say and do – as if what we have forgotten how to do, and what we almost at all costs refuse to do, is to take an interest in our own lives. Acknowledging, diagnosing and refusing that refusal, which means learning how to speak for ourselves, seems a necessary first step toward changing the world.

Carl E. Kandutsch holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University and currently operates the Kandutsch Law Office (www.kandutsch.com) in Plano, Texas.

Carl Kandutsch (ckandutsch@verizon.net) holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Yale University and currently owns and operates the Kandutsch Law Office (www.kandutsch.com) in Plano, Texas.