Wittgenstein and Modernism

Wittgenstein and Modernism

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Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared that philosophy “ought really to be written only as a form of poetry,” and he even described the Tractatus as “philosophical and, at the same time, literary.” But few books have really followed up on these claims, and fewer still have focused on their relation to the special literary and artistic period in which Wittgenstein worked. This book offers the first collection to address the rich, vexed, and often contradictory relationship between modernism—the twentieth century’s predominant cultural and artistic movement—and Wittgenstein, one of its preeminent and most enduring philosophers. In doing so it offers rich new understandings of both.
Michael LeMahieu Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé bring together scholars in both twentieth-century philosophy and modern literary studies to put Wittgenstein into dialogue with some of modernism’s most iconic figures, including Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Walter Benjamin, Henry James, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Adolf Loos, Robert Musil, Wallace Stevens, and Virginia Woolf. The contributors touch on two important aspects of Wittgenstein’s work and modernism itself: form and medium. They discuss issues ranging from Wittgenstein and poetics to his use of numbered propositions in the Tractatus as a virtuoso performance of modernist form; from Wittgenstein’s persistence metaphoric use of religion, music, and photography to an exploration of how he and Henry James both negotiated the relationship between the aesthetic and the ethical.

Covering many other fascinating intersections of the philosopher and the arts, this book offers an important bridge across the disciplinary divides that have kept us from a fuller picture of both Wittgenstein and the larger intellectual and cultural movement of which he was a part. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226420547
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/29/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 674 KB

About the Author

Michael LeMahieu is associate professor of English at Clemson University and coeditor of the journal Contemporary Literature. He is the author of Fictions of Fact and Value: The Erasure of Logical Positivism in American Literature, 1945–1975. Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé is assistant professor of English and an affiliated faculty member in the Stone Center for Latin American Studies and the Programs for Gender Studies and Film Studies at Tulane University.

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Wittgenstein and Modernism

By Michael Lemahieu, Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-42054-7


Wittgenstein and Modernism in Literature: Between the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations


Only connect!

— E. M. FORSTER, Howards End (1910)


In a recent book, A Singular Modernity, Fredric Jameson suggests that modernity ought not to be thought of as a concept but rather should be understood as a category of narrative. Among the narrative frameworks under consideration (Jameson himself considers no fewer than fourteen), the strongest ones are organized around the theme of the "new" that the term "modern" so boldly announces (Ezra Pound: "Make It New"). This is hardly surprising. Jameson's "singular" narrative of modernity is in fact the one that Hans Blumenberg characterized years ago as grounded in the power of "historical self-assertion." Its success derives from the degree to which its own rhetorical force is transformed into a historical fact. And in this regard, Jameson is no doubt right: the "moderns" of any age tend not to establish themselves as such by conceptual argument, and the "moderns" do not necessarily share a set of common features across history, from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, that any concept might delineate; but they do all seem to engage in a rewriting of history that gives them power, and it is this rewriting that is said to mark modernity as a category of narrative. Similarly, Jameson contends that the narrative of modernity is designed to produce the effects appropriate to whatever new historical departure it claims to make, even where that shift involves overcoming earlier versions of itself: "The affirmation of the 'modernity' of this or that generally involves a rewriting of the narratives of modernity itself which are already in place and have become conventional wisdom. ... All of the themes generally appealed to as ways of identifying the modern — self-consciousness or reflexivity, greater attention to language or representation, a materiality of the painted surface, and so on and so forth — all these features are mere pretexts for the rewriting operation and for securing the effect of astonishment and conviction appropriate to the registering of a paradigm shift."

To see modernity in this way is nonetheless to subsume the ambitions at work behind the specific rewritings of the past that we find within its particular arts and social forms (literature, the visual arts, architecture, philosophy, etc.) under what might more properly be called a meta narrative construct. In fact, the sweeping power of a theory such as the one Jameson proposes risks reducing the project of modernity to the single trope of "rewriting" the past. (His own title does indeed underscore the singularity of modernity.) And yet, if the narrative of modernity involves an "overcoming," one ought to be able to give some account of what is overcome and to explain how — historically or otherwise — this overcoming affects the borders of various disciplines, discourses, and social formations, not least of all because those borders may themselves be put in play as part of the many "rewritings" of the past that modernity may involve. Finally, any understanding of modernity ought not only acknowledge its will to rewrite the past, even where this might involve various particular pasts, but also see in its "rewriting" the traces of those things that are not overcome and thus to understand modernity as an "incomplete" project. Modernity is incomplete not because its ambitions never could be fully realized but rather because its limits were bound, in time, to be discovered and reflected back into that very project itself, providing ever new materials for critique. This self-reflective version of modernity is central to "modernism," or so I would propose, and it is as part of this process that the various modern disciplines and art forms were transformed by an engagement with the limits of the very elements that are most essential to them and by a discovery of their surprisingly intimate connection to those things that might have appeared most alien.

In what follows, my aim is to track the implications of these questions for literature and philosophy by setting the work of Wittgenstein in dialogue with a series of more or less contemporary literary texts by Woolf, Stein, and Beckett. I am not proposing that Wittgenstein's writings are themselves literary, even though he himself argued that philosophy ought to be practiced only as a kind of "poetic writing" (dichten). Rather, I wish to suggest that in the process of giving a new definition to the form and aim of philosophy — and in doing so twice, first in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and again in the writings epitomized in the Philosophical Investigations — Wittgenstein also marked out an important "negative ground" against which the ambitions of philosophy were placed. This "negative ground" is the space outside of philosophy in terms of which it must come to understand its capacities and its limitations (e.g., what can and cannot be known, said) rather than any of the places it has drawn wrong conclusions. Wittgenstein's Tractatus aims to overcome the confusions he diagnoses in our use of language and in our view of the world — to get us to "see the world aright." How this is to happen is not something the book indicates explicitly; rather, it is to be constructed as the reader discovers the limitations of the book's propositions, each one of which may nonetheless appear to make sense in itself. He indicates the problem (e.g., "The book deals with the problems of philosophy and shows ... that the method of formulating these problems rests on the misunderstanding of the logic of our language") but gives us relatively little in the way of a positively stated solution or replicable method, leaving that to the reader to fathom by working his or her way through the text — climbing up the ladder of the book's propositions and then, as it were, throwing those propositions away.

The "negative ground" created by Wittgenstein's successive redefinitions of the practice of philosophy in the Tractatus and the Investigations helps bring clarity to the philosophical dimension of at least two of the principal veins of modernism in literature. This matters not because we need Wittgenstein to reveal things about modernist literature that we already know to be true but precisely because his work helps show us some things about modernism's relationship to philosophy that we may not have sufficiently realized. First, modernism explores the power of language to register the qualities of experience in consciousness, which Wittgenstein identified as standing outside of philosophy's bounds in his early work, the Tractatus. The second is to make strange, so as to show anew, fundamental ideas about how we make meaning by stringing words and phrases together. This is not so far away from what the Investigations sought to do, albeit from a very different direction — namely, by attempting to quiet a persistent philosophical impulse. Here, as I will explain in the final section of this chapter, we are in a realm where the conventional distinctions between "literature" and "philosophy" may not hold. If Wittgenstein's "modernism" asks philosophy to face and acknowledge its literary "outside," then the same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for modernist literature. With regard to both these forms of writing, modernism is not just the place where the distinctions between them break down but rather the place where acknowledging something of value about the other is a crucial element in each one's overcoming the grip of its own tradition.

Wittgenstein (I): Tractatus

The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) might seem like a strange place to begin a discussion of Wittgenstein as a modernist writer if one takes anything like Jameson's narrative characterization of modernism seriously, for in presenting the Tractatus, Wittgenstein did not position himself as "rewriting" the past at all. On the contrary, he acknowledged his debts to Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell quite openly ("to the great works of Frege and the writing of my friend Bertrand Russell I owe in large measure the stimulation of my thoughts" [TLP, p. 28]). Beyond this, he said that he did not really care how new or original his ideas might be: "This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it ... what I have here written makes no claim to novelty in points of detail; and therefore I give no sources, because it is indifferent to me whether what I have thought has already been thought before me by another" (TLP, p. 27). Rather, his aim was to distinguish between what can and cannot be said clearly, and this, more than any historical achievement as such, is the singular importance he claims for the work: "I am ... of the opinion that the [philosophical] problems have in essentials been finally resolved" (TLP, p. 28). To have fully resolved philosophy's problems would, of course, constitute a remarkable accomplishment — implicitly a first, to be sure — and yet Wittgenstein did not stop there. The remark is not inconsistent with his view of some of the greatest philosophers of the past, as expressed in notes written some ten years later: "Reading the Socratic dialogues one has the feeling: what a frightful waste of time! What's the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing" (CV 14)? "Resolving" philosophy's problems turns the Tractatus into a kind of vanishing act for anyone who would read it: "He who understands me understands [my propositions] as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them" (TLP 6.54). Wittgenstein's word at the end of this phrase is überwinden (overcoming); indeed, the entire passage suggests a version of modernism that is not so much a historical overcoming as it is an internal overcoming, one that involves changing one's relationship to particular habits of language and mind that, while inherited from the past, are very much a part of philosophy's (and our) "present." And while Wittgenstein hints that something quite new and different might follow from this work, he says precious little about what that might be ("the value of this work ... consists in the fact that it shows how little has been done when these problems have been solved," suggesting that some new or different kind of work must begin after the Tractatus concludes) (TLP, p. 29). The suggestion is that philosophy as the Tractatus imagines it may best serve as an ancilla — that is, in spite of its apparent "difficulty," it aids us in approaching something more difficult still (e.g., the things that lie outside its bounds, toward which the book can point us but about which it cannot instruct us). This renders the Tractatus's claims to have resolved philosophy's problems considerably less definitive that they might otherwise seem.

We can understand what the Tractatus attempts to do in two ways: one in relation to the explicit claims it makes (and these, in turn, in relation to its own claim that, once grasped, they become "senseless") and the other in relation to the prior history of continental philosophy, from which it turns away even more dramatically than Frege and Russell did. (This important turn was all the more consequential for Wittgenstein, whose own relationship to fin-de-siècle Viennese culture and to the writings of Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard is well known.) We can characterize this as a turning away from a philosophy concerned with the broad range of "experience" and especially from the Kantian and Romantic formulations of experience. Wittgenstein is explicit: internally, the Tractatus endeavors to explain the "world," where "world" is understood strictly as "the totality of facts" (1.1). The particular argument Wittgenstein is working through here is that "facts" are states of affairs in the world and not "things"; "experience" is neither one. He explains further that "the facts in logical space are the world" (1.13). We can take this proposition as reversible, just as the Tractatus itself does in short order ("The world divides into facts" [1.2]). "Facts," not values, are what matters (though what ultimately matters more is the recognition that propositions around "facts," including as distinct from values, are "senseless"). This is a world in which all possibilities are the facts of logic; all the connections among them that might conceivably be articulated are picturable and logical ("The totality of true thoughts is a picture of the world" [3.01]). This picture is bound to be complex, since no object can be thought of apart from its (logical) connections: "Just as we cannot think of spatial objects at all apart from space, or temporal objects apart from time, so we cannot think of any object apart from its connexion with other things" (2.0121). And yet the fraught question of connection, so essential for experience and so important for modernism in literature, is never broached in the Tractatus from the perspective of consciousness. Indeed, it is not just experience but specifically any understanding of connected experience as it is rooted in "consciousness" that the Tractatus studiously avoids in its chiseled view of the world.

"Experience" was of course a crucial term for Kantian philosophy as well as for a number of the Romantic authors who came after Kant and attempted to resolve the questions that his work left unsettled. As I will detail in the next section, "experience" continued to be central for modernist literature, though not entirely in the way Kant understood that term. For Kant, experience itself is a kind of cognition; it requires the use of our capacity of understanding, which has rules we must presuppose as already operative prior to our apprehension of the objects we may cognize. Experience is "knowledge by means of connected perceptions," and the categories of space and time are "conditions of the possibility of experience" (CPR, B161, p. 171). To have "experience" for Kant requires, among other things, the power, through consciousness, to consolidate our many and varied representations of things: "The manifold representations, which are given in an intuition, would not be one and all my representations, if they did not all together belong to one self-consciousness. Even as my representations (even if I am not conscious of them as such) they must conform to the condition under which alone they can stand together in one universal self-consciousness, because otherwise they would not all without exception belong to me." "Consciousness" (the quintessential "I think") accompanies all our representations and is irreducible — it "cannot itself be accompanied by any further representation" (B132, 153).

Contrast this with the Tractatus, where the language of "representation" is traded for "picture," and where a picture gives us "the facts in logical space" (TLP 2.11). This is dramatically different from Kant's understanding of the work of "representation," where one of the greatest challenges is to align inner sense and outer sense. For Kant, "outer sense" is the means by which we represent things external to us; "inner sense" is the means by which the mind intuits its own inner state. But if representations are things we make, and make spontaneously, then how can we know that they correspond to the way things in the world really are? Kant's answer revolves around the famous "Copernican turn" in his work; this is the line of argument according to which the categories for making judgments about things must correspond to the way things really are in the world, and vice versa. Wittgenstein's Tractatus makes no distinction between inner and outer sense, hence it has no need to reconcile representations "in consciousness" with the way things are in the world. Neither does it take the question of "experience" on board.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: Wittgenstein, Modernism, and the Contradictions of Writing Philosophy as Poetry
Michael LeMahieu and Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé

Part 1 Wittgenstein’s Modernist Context
1          Wittgenstein and Modernism in Literature: Between the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations
Anthony J. Cascardi
2          “To Become a Different Person”: Wittgenstein, Christianity, and the Modernist Ethos
Marjorie Perloff
3          The Concept of Expression in the Arts from a Wittgensteinian Perspective
Charles Altieri
4          Wittgenstein, Loos, and Critical Modernism: Style and Idea in Architecture and Philosophy
Allan Janik

Part 2 Wittgenstein’s Modernist Cultures
5          Loos, Musil, Wittgenstein, and the Recovery of Human Life
Piergiorgio Donatelli
6          Wittgenstein, Benjamin, and Pure Realism
Eli Friedlander
7          What Makes a Poem Philosophical?
John Gibson

Part 3 Wittgenstein and Literary Modernism
8          In the Condition of Modernism: Philosophy, Literature, and The Sacred Fount
Kristin Boyce
9          The World as Bloom Found It: “Ithaca,” the Tractatus, and “Looking More than Once for the Solution of Difficult Problems in Imaginary or Real Life”
Karen Zumhagen-Yekplé
10        Lectures on Ethics: Wittgenstein and Kafka
Yi-Ping Ong
11        Bellow’s Private Language
Michael LeMahieu

List of Contributors

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