Stanley Cavell on Wittgenstein as a cultural critic

January 30, 2014


From “The Investigations as a Depiction of Our Times,” in Stanley Cavell’s This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein

Let us see whether we can now sketch what I called a perspective from which the writer of the Investigations is a philosopher—even a critic—of culture. I start here form a variation on a question Professor von Wright poses in his paper “Wittgenstein in Relation to His Times” (in Wittgenstein and His Times, edited by B. McGuinness). Von Wright asks whether “Wittgenstein’s attitude to his times,” while naturally essential to understanding Wittgenstein’s intellectual personality, is also essential in understanding Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Von Wright describes the attitude in question, for good reason, as Spenglerian, and he sees the link between the attitude and the conceptual development of the philosophy in “Wittgenstein’s peculiar view of the nature of philosophy.”

Because of the interlocking language and ways of life, a disorder in the former reflects disorder in the latter. If philosophical problems are symptomatic of language producing malignant outgrowths which obscure our thinking, then there must be a cancer in the Lebenweise, in the way of life itself.

Given my sense of two directions in the idea of a form of life, von Wright’s appeal here to “a cancer in the way of life” makes me uneasy. “Way of life” again to me sounds too exclusively social, horizontal, to be allied so directly with the human language as such, the life form of talkers. And the idea of a cancer in a culture’s way of life does not strike me as a Spenglerian thought. “Cancer” says that a way of life is threatened with an invasive, abnormal death, but Spengler’s “decline” is about the normal, say the internal, death and life of cultures. I quote three passages form the Introduction of The Decline of the West:

I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history . . . the drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound throughout its own life-cycle; each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image; each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will and feeling, its own death. . . .

. . . every Culture has its own Civilization. In this work, for the first time the two words, hitherto used to express an indefinite, more or less ethical, distinction, are used in a periodic sense, to express a strict and necessary organic succession. The Civilization is the inevitable destiny of the Culture . . . The “Decline of the West” comprises nothing less than the problem of Civilization.

These cultures, sublimated life-essences, grow with the same superb aimlessness as the flowers of the field. They belong . . . to the living Nature of Goethe, and not to the dead Nature of Newton. I see world-history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms.

I am not in a position to claim that Wittgenstein derived his inflection of the idea of forms of life from Spengler’s idea of cultures as organic forms (or for that matter from Goethe’s living Nature), but Spengler’s vision of Culture as a kind of Nature (as opposed, let us say, to a set of conventions) seems to me, shared, if modified, in the Investigations.

Nor, similarly, as I have implied, do I think that the Investigations finds disorder in language itself. If those are right who insist that Wittgenstein thought this in the Tractatus, then in his progression to the Investigations he became more Spenglerian. Or perhaps he remained ambivalent about it. Then take what I am here reporting as my impression of his Spenglerian valence. This means that I think the griefs to which language repeatedly comes in the Investigations should be seen as normal to it, as natural to human natural language as skepticism is. (Hume calls skepticism an incurable malady; but here we see the poorness of that figure. Skepticism, or rather the threat of it, is no more incurable than the capacities to think and to talk, though these capacities too, chronically, cause us sorrow.) The philosophically pertinent griefs to which language comes are not disorders, if that means they hinder its working; but are essential to what we know as the learning or sharing of language, to our attachment to our language; they are functions of its order.

When Wittgenstein finds that “philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” he is not as I understand him there naming language simply (perhaps not at all) as the efficient cause of philosophical grief, but as the medium of its dispelling. One may perhaps speak of language and its form of life—the human—as a standing opportunity for the grief (as if we are spoiling for grief) for which language is the relief. The weapon is put into our hands, but we need not turn it upon ourselves. What turns it upon us is philosophy, the desire for thought, running out of control. That has become an inescapable fate for us, apparently accompanying the fate of having human language. It is a kind of fascination exercised by the promise of philosophy. But philosophy can also call for itself, come to itself. The aim of philosophy’s battle, being a dispelling—of bewitchment, of fascination—is, we could say, freedom of consciousness, the beginning of freedom. The aim may be said to be a freedom of language, having the run of it, as if successfully claimed from it, as of a birthright. Why intellectual bewitchment takes the forms it takes in the Investigations we have not said—Wittgenstein speaks of pictures holding us captive, of unsatisfiable cravings, of disabling sublimizings. He does not, I think, say very much about why we are victims of these fortunes, as if his mission is not to explain why we sin but to show us that we do, and its places.

I assume this is not exactly how others read the passage about the battle against bewitchment. But how close it is to, and distant from, a more familiar strain of reading may be measured by a small retranslation of a sentence from a passage two sections earlier: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is not friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk.” It is important to me—speaking of closeness and distance—to recall here Kierkegaard’s stress on walking as the gait of finitude; and to note that for a similar cause walking is a great topic of Thoreau’s. Wittgenstein’s passage continues in German as follows: Wir wollen gehen; dann brauchen wir die Reibung. Professor Anscombe translates: “We want to walk; so we need friction.” This takes our wanting to walk as a given. But suppose, as in Kierkegaard and in Thoreau, walking is specifically a human achievement, a task in philosophy. I change the connective: “We want to talk; then we need friction.” I would like this to suggest that our wanting to walk is as conditional—I might almost say as questionable—as our need for friction: If we want to walk, or when we find we are unable to keep our feet, then we will see our need for friction. The philosopher portrayed in the Investigations, confronted by unsatisfied interlocutors, has to show them their dissatisfactions, their loss of progress. This is not, to be sure, making someone want; it is at most helping them to allow themselves to want, but turned around the point of genuine need. May not such a role be one occupied by a philosopher of culture?

To read more about This New Yet Unapproachable America here, click .

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