Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wittgenstein's Vienna

I remember picking up my copy of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue once, thinking I should really read it some time, and then finding that I obviously had read it already, since it was full of my marginalia. So I can't be sure whether I really just read Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin's Wittgenstein's Vienna properly for the first time (rather than just reading in it, which I'm pretty sure I have done), but I think that's what happened. I should have read it years ago, decades ago.

It's not exactly easy going. The book deals with science, music, history, politics, philosophy, architecture, journalism, art, and more, requiring a fair amount of knowledge and sophistication in the reader. I went into it hoping that I might be able to assign it to undergraduates and quickly realized there was no way that would ever work. Which was disappointing. As was the authors' tendency to use phrases from Wittgenstein in describing the views of others, which seemed to me at first to be an attempt to make various figures appear more proto-Wittgensteinian than they really were. And their reading of Wittgenstein is a little more mystical, perhaps a lot more, than mine.

But what a good book!  Or what an impressive confirmation of much that I already thought about Wittgenstein, his interests, and the connections between them. (Hmm. That sounds arrogant. I mean a) that the book is impressive, and b) that one thing I like about it is that it confirms things I already believe (as well as doing much more besides this). People who taught me have been influenced by it, I suspect.) It even suggests a connection between Wittgenstein's remarks on private language and ethics (see p. 235), which I had thought was a new idea. It would be good reading for anyone who intends to read James Klagge's Wittgenstein in Exile or Clive James's Cultural Amnesia. Klagge discusses the fact that Wittgenstein's belonging (as he felt) to another time and/or place should be expected to make his work difficult for us to understand, and gives some examples, but he says little about this other time/place and its concerns. Janik and Toulmin do that in spades. James emphasizes Vienna but, from the little I have read so far, he is a little superficial. Certainly his essay on Wittgenstein is not satisfying. On the other hand, Coetzee has called it, "'Aphoristic and acutely provocative: a crash course in civilization," which sounds like praise.


  1. Wittgenstein's Vienna was one of the first five or ten books on Wittgenstein I read, even before I had read all of the published works. It has a quite high profile over here, and it is natural for many people to think of Wittgenstein in the terms framed by the book. I guess this is largely von Wright's influence, as the emphases he puts on various aspects of Wittgenstein's thought and personality are quite similar to Janik and Toulmin's.

    One of the interesting things (I noted it down in my commonplace book many years ago with the intention of doing something with it) is the way in which the emphasis placed on Wittgenstein's Austrianness varies wildly from one school of Wittgensteinian philosophy to another. For instance, I consider myself to be a Swansea Wittgensteinian (of a sort), but to most Swansea Wittgensteinians the fact that Wittgenstein was an Austrian Jew who came from fin-de-siècle Vienna seems to be nearly irrelevant. There are ten times as many parallels drawn with someone like Simone Weil than with Kraus, Loos or Weininger. Parallels with Simone Weil are all well and good, but... we remember what Wittgenstein said about a one-sided diet. I'm historically oriented to such a high degree that I've never been entirely comfortable with this.

  2. Good point. Did Wittgenstein ever read Simone Weil? Or does that connection come from Rhees? I have wondered whether Wittgenstein is like Weil just because both are like Schopenhauer, although of course there are other mystics that Wittgenstein read.

    I'm probably a Swansea Wittgensteinian too, although I don't think of myself that way. I was only at Swansea for a year and was a Hackerite when I arrived (although we were Backer and Hackerites in those days). I wasn't when I left, but I like to pretend I'm an independent thinker (just like everyone else). If I have to pick a team I think in terms of Cora Diamond more than anyone at Swansea, even though there were some great people there (and still are).