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[CRUCIAL CLARIFICATION: unless I explicitly say otherwise, all references to Wittgenstein, or W, below should be read as "the post-Tractatus Wittgenstein." I am not interested in those who could be described as followers of the author of the Tractatus. In fact, I would actively avoid reading such philosophers, if they exist.]

I am neither a philosopher nor a philosopher-in-training, but lately I have being studying Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, and I'm loving it. I agree wholeheartedly with his diagnosis that “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday” (i.e. when language, even so-called “ordinary language”, is moved away from its “workplace”, its natural setting).

And yet, I have not found any other philosopher who gives any indication of taking W’s diagnosis to heart (as opposed to merely picking over W’s writings for an ornamental aphorism or two)1.

What’s most amazing about this state of affairs is that W is often described as the most important philosopher of the 20th century.

How can it be that a philosopher of such stature has left no philosophical descendants?

More precisely, wouldn't an absence of descendants render such exalted stature vacuous? Wouldn't it reveal it to be a sort of uncomprehending or superficial or downright hypocritical admiration?

I can think of a few possible resolutions for this conundrum:

  • Despite the high regard for W among philosophers, only a tiny minority among them really understand W’s ideas and what they imply for the practice of philosophy. (Incidentally, I believe this is the explanation that W himself would have preferred, since he often complained of being thoroughly misunderstood by his contemporaries.)
  • Taking W to heart means eschewing the whole apparatus of mainstream philosophy. It means no theorizing, no books, no lecturing on generalities. In other words, maybe the true Wittgensteinians are like the Shakers: a sect whose principles entail their disappearance. (Again, there’s biographical evidence in support of this alternative: W routinely discouraged his students from going into philosophy; it is not farfetched that he may have thought that the most useful contribution he could make to philosophy was to dismantle academic/professional philosophy as we know it.2)
  • The W that the world admires is the author of the Tractatus; his latter work is irrelevant (if it is not downright an embarrassment). (This point reflects the opinion of the likes of Bertrand Russell.)
  • My premise is wrong: there are some visible true Wittgensteinian philosophers out there, but I’m too ignorant to know of them.

(NOTE: I'm not claiming that any of these assertions is true! I am only listing them as more or less plausible hypotheses.)

Hoping that the last alternative above is the best among them is what prompted me to post this question. If there are any "true Wittgensteinians", who are they?

I would like to add the following "preemptive remark". I have often seen "ordinary language" philosophers mentioned as those who carried W's torch. I confess that I know very little of this group of philosophers, but this little I know makes me very suspicious of such a characterization. The Wikipedia quotes A. C. Grayling as flat out denying any significant influence of Wittgenstein on this group of philosophers, and even states that some of them were "actively hostile" to W. That's certainly not the kind of "Wittgensteinian" I'm trying to find!

More importantly, I am of the opinion that W, in §117 of his PI, tried to inoculate himself from any association with the “ordinary language” gang (my emphasis):

117. I am told: “You understand this expression, don’t you? Well then — I’m using it with the meaning you’re familiar with.” As if meaning were an aura the word brings along with it and retains in every kind of use.

(If, for example someone says that the sentence “This is here” (saying which he points to an object in front of him) makes sense to him, then he should ask himself in what special circumstances this sentence is actually used. There it does make sense.)

Another illustration of this position is a famous criticism by W of an exposition by G. E. Moore. W's attack centered around the artificiality of the sentence "I know I have two hands" in Moore's argument. That sentence certainly qualifies as "ordinary language", and uncontroversial at that, but, according to Wittgenstein, it is wholly implausible outside of philosophical discourse, and therefore, by this fact alone, artificial.

1 In fact, it’s worse than I’ve described. Not only W has no true descendants (as far as I can tell), but after his death, analytic philosophy, arguably the style of philosophy that W’s attacks are most directly aimed at, had a great flourishing.

2 I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that it is (primarily) mainstream philosophy that W is targeting for destruction when he writes, in the PI:

118. Where does this investigation get its importance from, given that it seems only to destroy everything interesting: that is, all that is great and important? (As it were, all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble.) But what we are destroying are only houses of cards, and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood.

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Had you come across this yet? –  Joseph Weissman Jun 8 '12 at 20:14
What about Richard Rorty and Thomas Kuhn? –  Jon Feb 9 '13 at 23:06
To a large extent, this is a variation on the "True scotsman" problem. Only in this case, it's not really even agreed upon what it would mean to be a post-Tractatus Wittgensteinian. –  virmaior Sep 18 at 9:15
i would really like to know enough to answer the question, but will leave a comment. ofc wittgenstein has many admirers, but afaik (which is almost entirely limited to the Tractatus) his work is better set to be clarified than added to. and a lot of what makes a philosopher is fashion, radicalness etc. he famously accused the logical positivist of completely misunderstanding him, which suggests he wanted (and felt he had provided) the final word. i'd be interested in anyone who successfully repudiated his work, rather than take a different tack –  MATHEMETICIAN Sep 18 at 12:50

4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Anat Biletzki's work (Over)Interpreting Wittgenstein (Kluwer, 2003), a survey of approaches to the interpretation of Wittgenstein, documents the tremendous disagreement over the broadest questions of what Wittgenstein was up to in his key works. To choose one that is particularly active at the moment: does Wittgenstein's remark (letter to Ludwig von Ficker, c.1919) of an unwritten ethical part to the Tractatus provide needed context about how to understand the work?

The book's point is an ethical one. I once meant to include in the preface a sentence which is not in fact there now but which I will write out for you here because it will perhaps be a key to the work for you. What I meant to write, then, was this: My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one. My book draws limits to the sphere of the ethical from the inside as it were, and I am convinced that this is the ONLY rigorous way of drawing those limits. In short, I believe that where many others today are just gassing, I have managed in my book to put everything firmly into place by being silent about it. And for that reason, unless I am very much mistaken, the book will say a great deal that you yourself want to say. Only perhaps you won't see that it is said in the book. For now, I would recommend you to read the preface and the conclusion, because they contain the most direct expression of the point of the book

If so, what kind of obstacle does the lack of anything much like an ethics in Wittgenstein present the interpreter?

Likewise there are issues over whether there is a Wittgensteinian method, does he advance a positive picture of what meaning is, does the PI build on or reject the Tractatus, how central is nonsense in his philosophy (Burton Dreben: "Wittgenstein said philosophy was nonsense, and, by God, he meant it!"), and so on.

I don't think that there can be a well-grounded answer to the question of whether someone is a real Wittgenstein without such an answer to the right interpretation of Wittgenstein's philosophy. And that has proven to be rather a tar baby.

That said, some of the most interesting interpretations of Wittgenstein have come from Harvard, and names to look at are Burton Dreben, Warren Goldfarb, Cora Diamond, and James Conant.

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I see your point about judging whether someone is a "true Wittgensteinian" or not. That was an inept formulation of my question, in retrospect. The only qualification that really matters to my question is that the philosopher agrees sufficiently with W's diagnosis of standard philosophy and his proposed remedy, for the philosopher to adopt W's method. He/she need not explain or justify this choice to anyone, so the question of the correctness of his/her interpretation of W's method is moot, or at most secondary, as far as the purpose of my question is concerned. But I give up... Clearly –  kjo Jun 6 '12 at 4:05
..., if such a philosopher exists, he/she is pretty obscure. And the conundrum of W's exalted standing in the world of philosophy remains: a bazillion admirers, but none (or hardly any) of them who take his main insight and main proposal sufficiently seriously to actually put it to practice. I find it shocking, and it makes the constant despair one reads about in W's biography seem a lot more justified than I at first realized... –  kjo Jun 6 '12 at 4:09
I don't see why those philosophers you mention are worth distinguishing as having 'the most interesting interpretations'. Why are theirs more interesting than others? –  adrianos Jun 8 '12 at 14:27
@adrianos: They are interesting, because they have stirred up some tired assumptions people have been making about Wittgenstein. –  Charles Stewart Aug 12 '13 at 19:26

How can it be that a philosopher of such stature has left no philosophical descendants?

I think you are looking in the wrong manner, and should instead be looking for "family resemblances." It's a mistake to expect someone else to directly take up Wittgenstein's project; it would be akin to feeling another's toothache.

Saul Kripke, of course, has made a career of grappling with Wittgenstein's thought. His readings are controversial, but not without interest.

Harry Staten has written an interesting book that points to connections between the projects of Derrida and Wittgenstein, all the more interesting because it is not a matter of direct influence (as Derrida never studied Wittgenstein's work.)

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I respectfully disagree. I don't think that following a teacher's advice is anything even remotely "akin to feeling his/her toothache", and I do think it is fair to describe much of W's post-Tractatus work as explicitly teaching a radically new way to do philosophy. What I'm hoping to find is those philosophers who have chosen to take W's writings in exactly this way, as teachings on how to do philosophy, and followed them. –  kjo Jun 5 '12 at 17:24
@kjo I think Michael's suggestion is that this might not be the most urgent or constructive of concerns, at least in comparison to the more general question about family resemblances among modern/contemporary philosophers; at any rate, maybe you could tell us a bit why exactly these hypothetical (note: perhaps non-existent!) 'devout followers' of the late Wittgenstein are so critical or urgent to your study? –  Joseph Weissman Jun 5 '12 at 18:25
But Wittgenstein didn't follow anyone else's method, he created his own. And so we should expect those influenced by him to similarly create their own way of doing philosophy. Very few philosophers create schools with acolytes; far more forge their own path in relation to their forebears. –  Michael Dorfman Jun 5 '12 at 18:26
@JosephWeissman: in the PI, W is proposing a very specific method to deal with philosophical questions. From what I can get of this method, it sounds AWESOME. I want to read philosophy done this way. Is Wittgenstein the only person who did philosophy in this way? –  kjo Jun 6 '12 at 3:32
@JosephWeissman: if that is the case, the issue is that his motivations are significantly at variance from those of the site as a whole and is simply off-topic, and asking him to transmute his current question into an on-topic question might not be productive. --- Of course, if there do not exist any Wittgensteinians in the sense of pursuing philosophy in the mode of Wittgenstein (which is suggested by the absence of specific recommendations to that effect), the simplest answer which has yet to be given is "no, there have not yet been any further Wittgensteinians of note, after Wittgenstein". –  Niel de Beaudrap Jun 12 '12 at 12:52

If you are looking for philosophical descendants of Wittgenstein then I would suggest you look at the work of those from the former philosophy department at Swansea university. This had a direct Wittgensteinian lineage, via Wittgenstein's pupil Rush Rhees. Best known is probably the work of former head D.Z. Phillips, along with the likes of Howard Mounce, Peter Winch, Illham Dilman and others.

Catherine Rowett, a former member of the department, pays it probably best tribute. "in its heyday it was an inspirational School, and changed my life and my philosophical outlook for good."

The school's Wittgensteinian work is of sufficient note that in 2009 the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein society published a collection of essays (Sense and Reality: Essays out of Swansea, ed. John Edelman, Walter de Gruyter & Co, 2009) on what it loosely called the Swansea conception.

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I studied under PMS Hacker, who together with the late Dr Gordon Baker was a devout Wittgensteinian and like you regarded followers of the Tractatus with disdain. He has taken Wittgensteins approach and developed it.

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