RUPERT READ, University of East Anglia, Norwich (England); 9 Dec. 2000, Paris.


[Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all page references are to The New Wittgenstein,

London: Routledge, 2000 (eds. Crary and Read)]


Talk outline:

 0) Qu-est ce qu  c’est ‘Le nouvel Wittgenstein’?

  1) Est-ce qu’il y a un interpretation nouvel de Wittgenstein?

   2) Si l’interpretation de Crary, Read etc. est juste, est-ce que Wittgenstein un philosophe absolument original?

    3) Questions additionel pour discuter, aujourd’hui.


0) What is ‘The New Wittgenstein’?

The ground-breaking work especially of Stanley Cavell, James Conant, Cora Diamond (also latterly of John McDowell, Hilary Putnam, and Peter Winch) regards Wittgenstein’s philosophy (early and late) as entirely therapeutic, rather than as having any technical/theoretical/metaphysical aims or aspects. Wittgenstein has no ‘positive’ vision of philosophy (or of language) at all, ‘only’ a ‘negative’ account of the temptations to illusion and nonsense to which we are all subject.


            i) A ‘therapeutic’ vision of philosophy:

p.1 “Wittgenstein’s primary aim in philosophy is -- to use a word he himself employs in characterizing his later philosophical proceedures -- a therapeutic one. These papers have in common an understanding of Wittgenstein as aspiring, not to advance metaphysical theories, but rather to help us work ourselves out of confusions we become entangled in when philosophizing.”


            ii) This vision, continuous across Wittgenstein’s writings:

p.1 “[T]he Tractatus anticipates [Wittgenstein’s] later thought in more significant ways than is ordinarily assumed.”


            iii) ‘Nonsense’, an important term of criticism:

Wittgenstein searches for the sense in a set of words, for a context of possible use for them, but, if and when this search fails, the conclusion is not that one has arrived at a falsehood, or even at a piece of ‘substantial nonsense’, but simply at a some plain nonsense, at a set of words we can as yet find no satisfying use for.

            iv) No role for jargon, no ‘philosophical language-game’:

Unusual uses of terms in Wittgensteinian philosophy can be only transitional -- the point is to dissolve philosophy back into everyday language, not to arrive at a privileged ‘Wittgensteinian’ language-game from which everyday language can be ‘seen (and described) clearly and generally’.

            v) No (such thing as an) external standpoint on language:

So our ‘failure’ to attain such a standpoint has no implications. We are not, e.g., ‘trapped within language’.



1) Is our’s a new interpretation of Wittgenstein?


 A new interpretation of the Tractatus:

It’s pretty clear that our’s is a new interpretation of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. TNW p.1: “It is extremely irregular to seak of a therapeutic aim in connection with the Tractatus.”

 But is the ‘continuitist’ claim new?

Some philosophers/commentators have tried before to characterize Wittgenstein’s later work as rather more continuous with his early work than has usually been recognized (e.g. Fann, Kenny, Koethe).

 And is the reading of Wittgenstein’s later works new?

What makes The New Wittgenstein’s reading of ‘the later Wittgenstein’ new? p.1: “[S]ome of the most widely accepted interpretations of Wittgenstein’s later thought characterize his main philosophical a therapeutic one.”


Response:  [[Regardez-vous TNW extraits, p.3]]

>>Wittgenstein does not give us an ‘external’ point of view on language, nor a view of language(-games) that is ‘regrettably’ from its insides ‘only’.

>>We are not being given a set of contentful theses about language(-games), even (in fact, especially) in Wittgenstein’s later work.

>>The upshot of Wittgenstein’s philosophical proceedures is not any set of views about language whatsoever, if these proceedures work. Rather, we cease to be tormented by the questions we seemed to be answering.

>>‘Philosophical grammar’ is not any body of propositions whatsoever; it is rather simply the proceedures which work towards our not feeling a need to state any such propositions.

[Question: What of the remarks in the Tractatus, in the Investigations, and here, which seem to carve out a space for these proceedures? For how long can one hold onto any of Wittgenstein’s remarks at all, for how long do they ‘stand’?

‘Answer’: see (3), below.]


 Result:  A new view of Wittgenstein’s later work:


  i) Cavell has of course been exploring a dialogical/therapeutic interpretation of the Investigations for many years; but such an interpretation has only relatively recently been worked through with regard to some key aspects of that work (e.g. para. 81-133; para.s 185-242), and to some extent beyond that work (e.g. Floyd on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of maths, Witherspoon and Conant on On Certainty).


   ii) Many influential readings of Wittgenstein’s later work, even some which take themselves to be ‘Wittgensteinian’ and to take seriously Wittgenstein’s own remarks about his practice and intent, profoundly fail to give up on the idea of philosophy as a view from outside of language. Either they covertly give such a view (e.g. Peter Hacker’s account of the ‘logical grammar’ of our concepts), or they say that we must make do without such a view, because such a view ‘cannot’ be attained (cf. some of Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish’s work).


    iii) An astounding possibility thus presents itself, a possibility very discomforting to the many thinkers who think they can call upon Wittgenstein’s later work as a resource for their intellectual work: that many commentators do not, in truth, understand Wittgenstein’s later work to be an advance on his earlier work. That it is actually more difficult to get the Investigations right, and to move beyond a ‘postivistic’ and ‘theoreticistic’ vision of it (and of language), than it is to get the Tractatus right.

            The ultimate intention of ‘The New Wittgenstein’ reading is not simply to orient Wittgenstein’s readers better to the Tractatus. It is to carry out the still barely commenced task of actually making Wittgenstein’s later work available to the thinking of philosophers etc. .



2) If the interpretation of Wittgenstein offered by Crary, Read, Diamond, Floyd etc. is correct, if Wittgenstein does have a continuously ‘austere’ view of philosophy, then does it follow that Wittgenstein is an absolutely original philosopher?


It perhaps looks like it does follow. For consider the following argument:


(A) The philosopher I have described in (0) and (1), above, is considerably superior to (the ‘old’) Wittgenstein, at least as we have been conventional trained -- prior to Cavell, Diamond, and Conant etc. -- to understand Wittgenstein.

(B)  Many of the conventional Wittgenstein commentators / ‘Wittgensteinians’ already have a very dismissive and superior attitude to Wittgenstein’s philosophical predecessors.

For example:

Rudolf Carnap, much ‘influenced’ by the Tractatus, thought pre-Wittgensteinian philosophy mostly a morass of philosophical errors and gross metaphysical speculations. Carnap attacked Heidegger on just these grounds: as a philosopher who simply spouted nonsense, whose ‘sentences’ violated the canons of ‘logical syntax’ at every crucial point.

Peter Hacker follows a similar path. Taking himself to be an advocate of Wittgenstein’s therapeutic conception of philosophy, he attacks virtually every contemporary philosopher and virtually every candidate ‘great’ forebear of Wittgenstein as demonstrably confused, hopelessly misled by the structure and possibilities of language.


(C)  Conclusion:  By transitivity, ‘The New Wittgenstein’ is far more radical and right than any other philosopher in history.


However: the Conclusion follows only if we take a similar line to Carnap and Hacker about the history of philosophy.

            But it is striking that the leading New Wittgensteinians -- Cavell, Diamond, Conant, Putnam -- are extremely interested in the history of philosophy. And that they wish to re-read much of the history of philosophy, just as they have re-read Wittgenstein.


   Re-reading the history of Western Philosophy ‘through’ Wittgenstein:

The New Wittgenstein is far ahead of the ‘old’ Wittgenstein, and likewise of what the philosophical traditions from which Wittgenstein emerged have been generally understood to be -- but I think that those philosophical traditions too have been badly underestimated. I see Wittgenstein as, very roughly speaking, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ -- but I think the following:

 Mainstream history of philosophy (or at least the history of philosophy as represented in much mainstream philosophy (especially but not only ‘Anglo-American’ philosophy), including ‘conventional/mainstream’ Wittgenstein interpretation) cannot understand Wittgenstein’s predecessors as giants. I think, in particular, that the philosophies of Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx and Frege have been chronically misrepresented by mainstream commentary.


    Wittgenstein and his ‘therapist’ predecessors:

The question about just how original The New Wittgenstein is, relative to the traditions from which he emerged, now becomes:

Can it be plausibly argued that most of the truly great figures of the Western philosophical canon since Berkeley have been great, not because of being system-builders, but precisely because of not being system-builders? Have there been substantial elements, rather, of a ‘therapeutic’ aim in the philosophies of a number of the central figures in the Western canon?


            Brief development of two examples:

Hume has been neglected (in favour of Kant) by the ‘New’ Wittgensteinians. I suggest that we can already find some of the major themes of Wittgensteinian philosophical writing (e.g. a thoroughgoing understanding of one’s philosophical authorship as ‘self-undermining’) in Hume. I read Hume as anticipating Conant’s Kant: I read Hume as proto-Wittgensteinian in his methodology. Hume throws away his ‘ladder’ at the close of Book 1 of the Treatise, and (more subtly) in the progress of the first seven sections of the 1st Enquiry, wherein an apparent tacit endorsement of the metaphysical reality of causation is progressively undermined, culminating in a ‘view’ strikingly reminiscent of (i.e. ‘anticipative’ of) Wittgenstein’s remarks on causation in the Tractatus.  


Nietzsche: I read perhaps Nietzsche’s greatest work, The Genealogy of Morality, as leading to a conclusion which implicates the work itself in the very ascetic ideal which the work is critiquing -- again, an authorial strategy virtually unnoticed by commentators. I suggest that Nietzsche shows self-consciousness concerning this; and so Heidegger’s critique of him is unnecessary -- Nietzsche had already got there himself. Nietzsche already anticipated (and was thereby beyond) his reception as the last metaphysician.    


(C*)  Actual Conclusion: ‘The New Wittgenstein’ interpretation of Wittgenstein is importantly new as Wittgenstein interpretation; but, if we’re right, this New Wittgenstein is not so sui generis in the history of philosophy as some ‘Wittgensteinians’ -- e.g. Positivistically-inclined readers of Wittgenstein (e.g. Hacker) -- have claimed.


A candidate account of how Wittgenstein is beyond the ‘giants’ who preceded him:

Martin Stone’s (Chapter 5):  [[projecteur aerien]].



3) Some resulting questions, for possible discussion today:


i) If we can successfully re-read philosophers such as Hume, Nietzsche and Marx, perhaps even Descartes, Locke and Spinoza, as in some key respects ‘therapetic’ in their conduct of philosophy, then why not re-read Carnap, Hacker, Kripke, Derrida etc. in the same fashion?

>> Is it only a matter of perspective and choice of interpretational stance whether one reads a philosopher as asserting controversial theses / developing a theory, or not?


ii) If Wittgenstein’s philosophy really is therapeutic through and through, then what are we to make of the words of Wittgenstein’s which we wish to ‘hold onto’ in order to establish this interpretation? E.g. Is the ‘frame’ of the Tractatus any less nonsensical than the ‘body’ of the work (i.e. than the ‘propositions’ which we are invited to ‘throw away’)? What is the status of the truth-tables etc. in Tractatus?

>> And what is the status of our discourse, ‘explaining’ all this? Are we supposed to recognize my own words, too, as through and through transitional, as latent nonsense?


iii) How crucial is the ‘therapy’ metaphor? If the philosopher is a therapist, then she is not a therapist who can claim to know what is wrong with the patient, that much is clear. The therapy must always be mutual. In fact, one is always oneself the patient as well as the therapist. (But does this make sense?)

>> Isn’t there, in any case, plenty of ‘therapy’ going on outside philosophy and psychotherapy? Isn’t much of what scientists do akin to therapy? (Think not just of Hertz and Boltsmann, but of the attempts at persuasion and mutual understanding so common throughout the practice and rhetoric of ‘normal science’).  Isn’t much of maths similar too? (See Floyd’s chapter).

>> Would it be reasonable to say the following: that philosophy is unlike maths or literary criticism in that it is the only intellectual activity which consists more or less exclusively of ‘therapy’?