book cover imageWittgenstein: From Mysticism to Ordinary Language
by Russell Nieli.
SUNY Press 1987,
261 pp., $32 paper.

One of the persistent themes of the Enlightenment was the need to simplify philosophy, to disentangle it from the rhetoric and methods of scholasticism, and to speak it in the vernacular to practical men for everyday purposes. Interestingly, few of the great Enlightenment theorists were university men—the notable exceptions, Kant and Hegel, emerged only as the Enlightenment waned. Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, and Hume, who represented the mainline of Continental Rationalism and British Empiricism, aspired to take royal or political patrons, and wrote in the vernacular for everyday educated readers. Hume attempted to make a living by writing what he regarded as popular works of history. Even Kant, the exemplar of a university professor, relished the moral intuitions of the common man, and wrote critiques of reason, he claimed, in order to make room for faith.

Nevertheless, the Enlightenment also undertook a relentless assault upon the epistemological foundations of philosophy, if not common sense. The charmingly direct appeal to the good sense of the reader—a quality to be found in most of the great epistemological works of the Enlightenment—never quite manages to soothe one’s recognition that, page after page, one’s ordinary and non-professional frames of reference are being subverted. Rather than producing a chastised, humble mode of philosophy, the Enlightenment spawned treatises as grandiose as the medieval summae. Despite the rhetorical sallies against the metaphysical, occult, and monkish style of their philosophical fathers, Enlightenment theorists concocted epistemologies which were verily acosmic, and which envisaged rational selves unencumbered by any determinate points in place or time. Despite their criticism of the schools, no philosophical culture ever became as deeply schooled and entrenched in professional guilds as did the philosophy of the classical modern period. One in search of a simple, everyday-affirming style of philosophizing will have to look elsewhere than the Enlightenment.

Much of the philosophy in the twentieth century has continued the search for the ordinary. In the main, twentieth-century philosophers have been as critical and dismissive of the Enlightenment systems of rationality as the latter were of medieval ones. Debunking begat further debunking. Today, there is flight from any system or philosophical method that would purport to make reason, and through reason, reality itself, transparent. Among twentieth-century philosophers, it is fair to say, Ludwig Wittgenstein is credited with having achieved something approximating a small-is-beautiful, humble, nonreductive style of philosophizing. The Tractatus, completed in the summer of 1918, is but a wisp of a book in comparison with the various critiques and treatises of the classical modern period. Subsequent works, such as the Philosophical Investigations (published in 1953, but written over a thirteen-year period), and various notebooks, were not systematically finished works. He constantly revised his own thought, which was really a philosophy in the making more than a finished system. Wittgenstein’s appeal derived as much from his person as from his published ideas. The shaggy and unfinished quality of the thought was matched by the personal career of the thinker. One might say that all of the estrangements of modern thought and culture were suffered in this man’s person.

He was born at Vienna in 1889. His early training was in mechanical engineering, in which he did research for a time. Interest in mathematics led him to philosophy, and this eventually drove him to a Thoreau-like isolation in a hut of his own making on a farm in Norway. Toward the end of the First World War, he was captured by the Italians, and finished his Tractatus in a prison camp. During this time he developed a strong interest in religious mysticism. Throughout his life he was devoted to a simplicity close to monastic, and indeed flirted with the idea of becoming a monk while working as a gardener’s assistant in a monastery outside of Vienna in 1920, and again in the summer of 1926. Wittgenstein gave away his inheritance shortly after World War One, and during the Second World War worked as a hospital porter in London. Although he eventually took a chair of philosophy at Cambridge, Wittgenstein counseled his students to reject professional philosophy in favor of ordinary jobs requiring manual labor. He is reported to have said that one is better off reading American detective magazines than reading the prestigious philosophical journals. Later in his career, when he embraced a philosophy of ordinary language, he contended that philosophy must leave intact the ordinary forms of life. (This is an admonition that some philosophers perhaps have contemplated, but which very few have been able to make good on.) He was an intriguing character, interested in mysticism and mathematical logic, but plagued by depression and thoughts of suicide.

As Russell Nieli points out, Wittgenstein’s career was launched by logical positivists—in the so-called Vienna Circle, Otto Neurath, and Rudolf Carnap, and in England, Bertrand Russell. These philosophers represented what was perhaps the most imperious legacy of the Enlightenment: to wit, the systematic reduction of philosophy to the model of mathematical science. All the rest of our intellectual occupations and manias could be left for poetry, which would express the metaphysical excesses of the mind. As Rudolf Carnap put it, metaphysicians are “musicians without a talent for music.” The logical positivists regarded Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as one more nail in the coffin of metaphysics. But Nieli does a fine job of showing that Wittgenstein’s thought actually had more in common with the via negativa of Christian mysticism than with the standard program of logical positivism. He stands closer to the practical wing of this mystical tradition (George Fox), Nieli argues, than to the ancient metaphysical tradition (Pseudo-Dionysius). Insisting upon a distinction between that which can be said in propositions and that which must be shown, the early Wittgenstein was absorbed with the problem of what stands beyond the philosophically sayable, and what cannot be captured in propositions.

Nieli not only places Wittgenstein in a mystical tradition that is somewhat recognizable to the Christian religion, but also clarifies what was at workin his later writings, when he affirmed a kind of philosophical discourse that was not rigorously mathematical in form or method. As a philosopher of ordinary language, Wittgenstein adopted what Nieli calls a “Burkean quality.” The task of philosophy, in Wittgenstein’s later writings, was no longer just to ascertain the boundaries of what is sayable in propositions, but to affirm the ordinary forms of life and human discourse. In short, philosophy hadto relinquish its role of debunking common sense. The later Wittgenstein rejected the very notion of a private language and, with it, the Cartesian legacy that would have philosophers examine an inner mental world, the contents of which could be sorted out, critiqued, and purified. Nieli contends that the transition from formal logic to ordinary language is at least partially understandable in terms of Wittgenstein’s personal need to develop a therapy for his own depression. The young Wittgenstein, who was fascinated by the depth of reality standing beyond the philosophically sayable, gave way to the later Wittgenstein who took comfort in the familiar and sayable contours of ordinary language and culture. He set the course for a new philosophy that receded from the ambition to organize science or to set political regimes on a rational footing. Philosophy was to be a personal therapy.

Russell Nieli’s book is a very readable account of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Nieli is careful to put Wittgenstein in historical and biographical contexts, and I believe he succeeds in making Wittgenstein’s thought intelligible without reducing it to either an exercise in intellectual biography or just a mapping of the micrologics of Wittgenstein’s various and sundry ideas. One may start with this book and want to go on and read Wittgenstein himself.  

Russell Hittinger was at the time of writing professor of politics at Fordham University and Princeton University. He currently holds the William K. Warren Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa, where he is also a Research Professor of Law.