[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.